ATLANTA — The cellist, who has barely slept, searches his laptop for a secret recording of a former symphony executive. The clarinetist is gone, joining two other musicians now playing in the New York Philharmonic. And the percussionist, who practiced all summer for a star turn that may never come, spent a recent morning packing bottles at a local brewery. He got $45 and, he adds, a case of ale.
This is life during a lockout, as members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra battle on two fronts: one for their collective future as a respected institution and the other for their families, who must make do without weekly paychecks and health insurance.
“I worry so much,” says violinist Denise Smith, a 30-year veteran of the ASO standing in a picket line outside the Woodruff Arts Center this week. “I know people are hurting. We have new players who have just moved here, who have moving expenses and student loans, and I don’t know how they’re paying for it.”
Symphony labor battles have become increasingly common, with recent conflicts in Minnesota, Chicago and at the Metropolitan Opera. What’s special about Atlanta’s dispute is that it’s the second lockout in two years. The Woodruff Arts Center, which oversees the ASO, demanded and received $5.2 million in cuts in 2012, which included reducing the orchestra’s season to 41 weeks from 52. Stanley Romanstein, the ASO’s president, assured the players that would never happen again. But Romanstein resigned last month, and the Woodruff leaders say that they were not aware of any such promise.
As the lockout stretches into its fifth week, cellist Daniel Laufer, a member of the ASO’s negotiating committee, says he can’t believe the players are back where they started.
“We were told, ‘We have to do this, the community will rally, foundations will rally,’ ” he says. “Here we are two years later, and it’s the same thing. This isn’t a solution, unless they want to have an octet on stage.”
The Atlanta Symphony has long been considered one of the best orchestras in the country, a step below the big five (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland) but with a rich history of performance and recordings.
Structurally, the ASO also stands out. Its board has no financial authority over the orchestra. That rests with the Woodruff Arts Center, founded in 1968 largely through a contribution from its namesake, Robert W. Woodruff, the longtime president of the Coca-Cola Co.
The Woodruff Center’s leaders, who also oversee the High Art Museum and Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, say that the ASO’s $2 million operating deficit on a $37 million annual budget has become a drag on the institution. Woodruff leaders want to balance that budget, either through salary cuts — the players are paid an average base salary of $71,256, according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians — or player reductions. Two years ago, the ASO lost seven permanent positions, dropping to 88 players from 95.
That prospect has led music director Robert Spano to take an unorthodox position. Usually, maestros remain silent during labor disputes. Spano has not, speaking publicly and, on Monday, privately meeting with Woodruff Center President Virginia Hepner and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D).
“This is not a normal labor dispute,” Spano said in a phone interview. “This is a question of whether Atlanta wishes to preserve its legacy of having a great orchestra or having a minor league orchestra. It’s not a question of payroll or health care or anything else. It’s a question of: Will Atlanta remain an important, major league orchestra?”
The players have also been more aggressive. Almost daily, they fire off news releases accusing Woodruff managers of mismanagement. They say that the Woodruff Center’s problems are much larger than the ASO’s, noting that the institution is paying $8 million in interest each year on $172 million in loans for a series of projects, including the 2005 expansion of the High Art Museum. They have been particularly critical of the arts center for failing to listen to offers from symphony supporters who want to end the lockout by offering money. And they feel betrayed.
This week, Laufer shared a recording from a meeting recorded in 2012 after the last deal. Romanstein, the ASO president at the time, is asked by a player whether there will be more cuts.
“I don’t want to be the Baltimore Symphony,” Romanstein says on the tape. “We’re the Atlanta Symphony. My comment to the WAC board is that if we have to make a one-time adjustment in order to get things in financial balance, okay, you do that. But you only get this once.”
Hepner, in an interview Monday, said she was not aware of the promise and, at this point, “everything is on the table.”
“We’re very grateful to the musicians for taking a pay cut,” she said. “None of us think they’re overpaid. They’re overpaid only in the sense that we can’t afford to pay them.”
And Douglas Hertz, the chairman of the Woodruff board, says that the Center has no choice. Corporations that donate to the ASO have been concerned with the annual deficits and demanding a more responsible model. (Two of the ASO’s top sponsors, Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, declined to comment.)
Hertz also complained that the players have been ungrateful to the Woodruff leaders, many of whom have contributed to the ASO.
In an interview last week with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hertz angered the players by questioning their tactics.
“It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people?” he said.
Hertz was asked this week whether he regretted that remark.
“Why? It does make me wonder,” he said. “I’m not calling them crazy. I’m just wondering if they’re crazy. These are the folks that we’ve endowed their chairs, and they’re calling us names. I don’t get it. The truth is, we’re on their side. I want to try to work with them.”
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter is not surprised by the level of vitriol. In 2012, she was president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during a labor dispute that led to a brief strike. She has one piece of advice for both parties.
“Listen, not talk,” she said. “Listen for understanding and compassion. I know it’s hard. We, as parents, learn this over time. Listening to understand and, in the end, one side isn’t always right and one side isn’t always wrong.”
The ASO conflict has resonated throughout the country. Musicians at other symphonies have sent more than $165,000 to the musicians. Other orchestras have reached out to offer fill-in gigs. The ASO also has lost members. Three players are gone for good — two to the New York Philharmonic and one to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. A fourth player has accepted a one-year contract with the New York Philharmonic.
Those who remain protest daily outside the Woodruff Center.
“Give me a beep right here,” principal percussionist Tom Sherwood urged a passing car on a recent afternoon, smiling when the driver obliged.
A month ago, Sherwood’s weekly $1,122.49 paycheck stopped showing up in his bank account. His wife, Jessica, teaches flute at a local school. They switched to her health insurance. Charles Settle, another percussionist, isn’t so lucky.
He stood near Sherwood, a protest sign in one hand, a leash for the family’s chocolate Labrador, Hazel, in the other.
Joining him were daughter Stella, 3, and wife Jocelyn, a part-time yoga instructor who is expecting their second child, a boy, in February. The family has signed up for an $800-a-month health-insurance policy, and last week, Settle worked a $45 shift at a local microbrewery.
Settle also is missing out on an important musical opportunity. He and Sherwood were set to be soloists in an Oct. 16 world premiere of a piece by Avner Dorman. He had been practicing all summer, and his parents were set to fly in from Nashville. He also stood to make an extra $3,000 from the gig. With the concert off, Settle is one of the many ASO players taking substitute gigs.
He heads to Seattle for a week and spends a chunk of November in Chicago.
“Which is great, except that I’m left alone with a toddler and a pregnant belly,” Jocelyn says.
Though they’ve been locked out of Symphony Hall, the ASO players have not stopped playing. They’ve played chamber music at a local club, Terminal West, and Friday night, about 35 players will perform two shows at the 525-seat theater at Oglethorpe University. They’re being led by Richard Prior, the Emory Symphony Orchestra’s conductor.
After walking the picket line earlier in the week, the players were thrilled to be onstage at Oglethorpe for a rehearsal and to be joined by members of the Atlanta Mozart Choir.
“It feels a little exciting and subversive,” said Michael Kurth, the bassist helping organize the performances. “It actually feels exhilarating to be with my colleagues, and just proper. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”