Atlanta Life and Culture

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More on Atlanta Symphony leader's resignation; petition launches; notes from musician lockout

When the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced the surprise resignation Monday of its president and CEO Stanley Romanstein, he said in a statement that he did so out of concern that his leadership would be an "impediment" to reaching a collective bargaining agreement with ASO musicians.

But when ASO Players' Association President Paul Murphy was asked if indeed Romanstein represented a roadblock to a new deal, his answer was, well, not exactly.

"Stanley was never empowered to negotiate an agreement with the Musicians of the ASO; neither this negotiation nor in 2012," Murphy said in an email to the AJC on Tuesday.

Murphy did acknowledge that the musicians had issues of trust with Romanstein. But leaders of the players' negotiating team have said consistently since the second lockout in two years began on Sept. 7 that they felt that they weren't really negotiating with the ASO president and CEO but with forces outside of the room.

They said the real decision-making power is held by members of the executive committee of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), the ASO's parent nonprofit.

"We remain hopeful that the WAC will realize that Atlanta deserves to retain and maintain the world-class symphony that is the ASO and that the resources are abundant in this great city to support such," Murphy said in his email.

The best hope at resuming talks, which ceased between the two sides even before the lockout, appears to be if the sides agree to bring in a federal mediator. Allison Beck, acting director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service who is credited with helping the Metropolitan Opera bring thorny negotiations to a successful close this summer, has been mentioned by management and the players.

ASO leadership was so anxious to get started with Beck that it announced last Saturday that the musicians had agreed to resume collective bargaining agreement discussions with the mediator aboard. That was followed a few hours later by a statement from the Players’ Association saying they had expressed interest only in talking with Beck about the process, but had not heard from her and had not yet agreed to her participation.

On Tuesday, Murphy confirmed that representatives of players had contacted Beck's office on Monday, but that a meeting had yet to be scheduled.

Woodruff Arts Center President and CEO Virginia Hepner said in the statement announcing Romanstein's resignation that management's goal is to find a sustainable business model that will allow the ASO to "flourish in the future."

She continued: "To do that, we need to find ways to broaden our base of patrons and supporters and address the deficits we’ve had for 12 consecutive years. All of us at the Arts Center are committed to working with the musicians to find a solution.”

Meghan McCloskey, an Atlanta stay-at-home mom, posted a petition on Tuesday morning asking the Woodruff Arts Center board to end the musician lockout. By late afternoon, it was nearing 1,000 signatures.

The effort was no doubt helped by an endorsement by ASO music director Robert Spano on his Facebook page and Tweets on the @ATLSymMusicians Twitter feed.

"I was motivated to write the petition because I noticed most of the press coverage and social media has really been targeted to the arts community," McCloskey explained. "The lockout has a far-reaching impact on metro Atlanta. Local businesses rely on the revenue performance nights bring them, which in turn becomes tax revenue. The symphony musicians teach music lessons to unprivileged children and they are also locked out from teaching. There’s more to this lockout than classical music fans not being able to attend an ASO performance. I hope the petition helps spread the word."

The page says she plans to deliver the signed petition to the Woodruff Arts Center board, with copies to Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta City Council, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Fulton County Commission.

"My real goal is to not have to deliver the petition at all," McCloskey allowed. "I hope it generates enough of a response that the WAC board ends the lockout. The sooner, the better."

Mayor Kasim Reed issued a  statement late last week on the ASO lockout, one that did not take sides but instead simply encouraged them to "return to the bargaining table." The full text of the statement:

“World-class cities have world-class orchestras. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is a Grammy-winning orchestra with a reputation for excellence across the globe.

"The ASO is facing the same challenges that many other major orchestras have faced. Diminished financial support for orchestras, from both public and private funding sources, has forced many to cut costs and adjust their operating model, which often leads to heated negotiations between management and musicians.

"However, tough negotiations do not have to result in a strike or lockout. I urge both sides to return to the bargaining table, realizing that the ASO’s financial solvency and musical excellence are intertwined, not opposing forces. A protracted lockout is not good for the ASO and not good for Atlanta.”

ASO bassist Michael Kurth, writing about a proposal by ASO management to assume control over the size of the orchestra, in an essay he titled "The Incredible Shrinking Orchestra" on his blog, trudgemusic: the view from stage left:

"My Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bass section should have eight players. That’s standard for a major symphony orchestra. It takes all eight of us, sweating, straining, pulling every decibel of tone out of our big, cumbersome instruments to even begin to balance the low brass that sit perched behind us ...

"My bass section should have eight players. But right now we have five. Five to do the work of eight. Not to get too personal, but in the past two seasons we’ve lost two to cancer and one to retirement. And one of the remaining five is dealing with a job-induced repetitive stress injury. And another is anticipating retirement very soon. So, we hire substitute players. ...

"And, talented as these subs are, they aren’t steeped in the music-making culture and traditions of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; they don’t always blend their sound the right way, they don’t bounce their bows at the same angle in martele passages, they hold ties a bit longer than we do in Mozart, they don’t appreciate the fine distinction that our Music Director expects us to make between sforzando and fortepiano in Brahms. Sort of like a championship baseball team trying to turn a triple play with an All-Pro shortstop that was just traded from another team. He may be a phenomenal player, but we’ve been turning that triple play together for years. So we spend time we shouldn’t have to clearing up these little discrepancies, time we should be spending unifying our interpretation to the conductor’s vision. ..."

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The AJC Features Team spotlights arts previews, reviews, profiles, news features and breaking news on Atlanta's cultural and life scene.