In the ongoing contract negotiations between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its musicians, heading toward a midnight Saturday deadline, Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles are supposedly a neutral party, the equivalent of Switzerland.
ASO music director Spano and principal guest conductor Runnicles are neither management nor part of the Atlanta Symphony Musicians Players’ Association. Still, on Tuesday night, the two took an unusual step: emailing an open letter to ASO board, management and musicians that, importantly, included a note of support for the latter.
Though they assert from the top that they don’t want to take sides, the maestros do ask ASO leadership to “acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made, and to examine other ways and areas to establish sustainability.”
The letter encourages a quick and peaceful settlement that would avoid repeating the discord from negotiations two years ago and expresses their wish for a long-term agreement that would allow the 70th anniversary season to start on time on Sept. 25.
Spano and Runnicles further write that they “fear” that the orchestra’s high musical standards might be forgotten or compromised in the heat of negotiations.
“Our emotional commitment to the ASO and its potential is profound,” they write. “This prompts us to speak out lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands as temporary stewards. This is all the more poignant in that next season we celebrate the legacy of Robert Shaw (music director from 1967 to 1988). The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss.”
ASO management was quick to respond Wednesday morning with a statement of its own, saying it “agree(s) with the sentiments expressed” in the maestros’ letter, but with an asterisk.
“Most of all, we agree that a work stoppage is not in the best interests of anyone associated with the ASO,” management’s statement continued. “But neither is the continuation of operating deficits that have been ongoing for 12 years nor the consequences they bring. They have led to concerns from our donors and a precipitous decline in our endowment.”
The exchange of statements was the most public development in negotiations that have been conducted close to the vest for months by both sides.
Spano’s participation was in stark contrast to two years ago, when he had no public comment during the increasingly heated talks that led to a musician lockout. Even after an agreement was struck a little more than a week before the season was to start, Spano declined to speak about putting the pieces back together.
“From a historical perspective, it is atypical for musical directors to get involved” in contract matters, Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus said Wednesday. He noted however that in the “post-economic-downturn labor environment,” musical leaders are becoming “increasing involved both overtly and behind the scenes.”
The entire text of the letter from Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles:
To: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra September 2, 2014
— The Board of Directors
— The Management
— The Musicians
Although it is neither our place nor our intent to involve ourselves directly in the collective bargaining process between musicians and management, we feel compelled to write this letter. Our doing so bears inherent risks as it may be construed as our taking sides in what again has proved to be a contentious process. We both feel bound by a sense of responsibility and deep commitment to represent and remind everyone what the ASO is all about: its high musical standards and aspirations. Indeed we are charged by contract to create and maintain it.
In the heat of the current negotiation we fear these standards might easily be forgotten or compromised. Our emotional commitment to the ASO and its potential is profound. This prompts us to speak out lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands as temporary stewards. This is all the more poignant in that next season we celebrate the legacy of Robert Shaw. The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss.
This year’s contract negotiation repeats an unhealthy pattern of pitting musician and management positions as incompatible alternatives. The situation is not unique to Atlanta. There are positive examples to emulate but above all we must avoid the residue of discord and acrimony. The concept that stopping the music — whether characterized as lockout or strike — as a reasonable alternative is unfathomable, deeply divisive, and would be a tragic mistake.
Two years ago, our musicians accepted huge concessions with an expectation that, in so doing, both board and management would be able to steer the organization out of financial distress. We ask the board and management to acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made, and to examine other ways and areas to establish sustainability.
Sustainability must also be applied to a quality of the orchestra and the notion of excellence, not only to finances. There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed. We must re-dedicate ourselves to the ASO’s founding principles of excellence and to the support of a full, robust, and world-class symphony orchestra.
We need a long-term agreement. The very nature of how the ASO interacts with its community is far better served without frequent interruption of collective bargaining. Creative innovation itself requires time. Conception, investment, and experimentation take time to implement, and cannot be assessed instantly.
As we reflect on our long and deep relationship with this remarkable orchestra, it is our fervent hope that our words would be used only as a reminder of the common purpose we share: the purpose to which the board has generously and tirelessly devoted considerable energy and personal resource - and that same purpose to which the musicians dedicate their lives and livelihoods.
We are both deeply committed and deeply concerned.
ROBERT SPANO DONALD RUNNICLES
Music Director Principal Guest Conductor
The full statement in response from ASO management:
We fully agree with the sentiments expressed in the letter from Mr. Spano and Mr. Runnicles.
- We recognize that the musicians have made significant sacrifices in the last two years to help the ASO's finances, as have many ASO staff members over many years. We are thankful for them all.
- We agree that the high musical standards and aspirations of the ASO are critically important and should not be compromised.
- We agree that it takes time to bring about sustainable change.
- Most of all, we agree that a work stoppage is not in the best interests of anyone associated with the ASO.
- But neither is the continuation of operating deficits that have been on-going for 12 years nor the consequences they bring. They have led to concerns from our donors and a precipitous decline in our endowment.
- Finally, we believe there are solutions that will allow the ASO management and musicians to balance the artistic and financial needs of the orchestra for the long term.