Thursday, October 4, 2012

Symphony season opens after summer of discord

Posted By on Thu, Oct 4, 2012 at 8:14 AM

Atlanta Symphony Hall
In the Marx Brothers' film A Night at the Opera, Groucho Marx noisily takes his seat at an already-started performance asking an indignant Margaret Dumont, "Who's ahead?"

It's a moment that perfectly encapsulates the slightly surreal and irreverent imagination of the Marx Brothers at their best. This year, however, it has some strange resonance. Symphony-goers at tonight's opening of the Atlanta Symphony season may very well take their seats literally wondering: who's ahead.

As recently as last week, it still wasn't clear if a single note would sound in Symphony Hall this season. But the announcement came through just last Wednesday that after a summer of painful and discordant contract negotiations, the Symphony administration and musicians had reached an agreement. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's 2012-13 season will open as scheduled tonight, Thursday, October 4, at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall with a concert featuring guest violinist Midori playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto under the baton of ASO Music Director Robert Spano.

The problems arose this summer due to the organization's cumulative nearly $20 million debt. In efforts to get the deficits under control, the administration asked the musicians to take cuts in pay and benefits over two years. The Players Association sought terms that seemed more equitable to them, asking management and senior staff to take similar cuts. Unable to reach an agreement with the administration, the players were locked out of Symphony Hall beginning August 27, with all pay and benefits cancelled. During the lockout, musicians continued to fulfill their obligations as mentors for the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra even after their contract expired.

On Wednesday, September 26, it was finally announced that the Players Association had begrudgingly accepted the administrations' terms. ASO President Stanley Romanstein and other top ASO executives will forfeit six percent of their collective salaries, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with the musicians accepting $5.2 million in cuts over the next two years.

The Players Association's recent statement did not sugarcoat the musicians' discontent with the situation:

"The musicians are not, and have never been, the cause of financial problems at the ASO, and in light of these agonizing cuts cannot be cited as such in the future. Their world-class performance is in stark contrast to that of the ASO’s leadership, both current and past. Management must be held accountable for under-performance at nearly every level for the past decade."

(But tell us how you really feel).

It's good news that an agreement has been reached. We don't doubt the good intentions and love of great music on both sides. But there's a lot that's worrisome about the recent unfolding of events. Such strong disagreements between workers and management seldom end just because a contract has been signed. Still, Atlanta wouldn't be the same without our symphony. We're happy that, at least for now, the music will play on.

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