When the Metropolitan Opera administration managed to negotiate a new contract with its union employees this summer without resorting to a threatened lockout, one might have hoped it was breaking what was becoming a sad and lengthy chain: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and, of course, the Minnesota Orchestra. But Atlanta, alas, got right back on the bandwagon. On September 6, they locked their musicians out for the second time in two years — after those musicians had agreed to considerable concessions in 2012 (a 15% salary cut, a reduction of the orchestra from 95 members to 88, a season ten weeks shorter) based on promises that no such lockout would ever happen again.

To date, the Atlanta lockout has cancelled the opening of the season and at least the first few weeks of concerts; the season won’t resume til November at the earliest. It has also marshalled widespread support for the musicians, including public statements from the orchestra’s music director, Robert Spano, and principal guest conductor, Donald Runnicles, and an open letter from a roster of well-known composers. One of the issues is the size of the orchestra; further cutting the number of players, musicians contend, would compromise the quality of the institution.

The tin-ear-management-versus-beleagered-musicians equation that often emerges in such situations was upended to a certain degree at the end of September when the orchestra’s president, Stanley Romanstein, unexpectedly resigned, saying — probably accurately — that his presence was an impediment to reaching an agreement. Since Romanstein’s interim successor, Terry Neal — a retired Coca-Cola executive and a member of the ASO board — is explicitly not going to be involved in contract negotiations, this leaves the orchestra contending, effectively, with the Woodruff Arts Center, which is at once the complex in which the Atlanta Symphony performs and its parent organization. (The WAC was in the news, since the last lockout, as the victim of embezzlement by an employee to the tune of more than $1 million; the employee, Ralph Clark, who became director of facilities during his 8 years at the center, was sentenced in February to two and a half years in prison.)

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Last week, the musicians issued a strong statement against the governing board chair of the center, Douglas Hertz, alleging that he had been part of similar strong-arm tactics to reduce the number of employees when he was on the Board of Administrators at Tulane University when they released 200 tenured faculty members in 2005; Hertz is, the musicians aver, willing to “break the backs of employees to achieve further financial concessions.” The symphony’s administration has already shown that it’s sensitive to its public image, shutting down comments on its Facebook page after the public took exception to their posting plugs for their recordings as if nothing else were going on. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Hertz explicitly rebutted the musicians’ charges on Saturday in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re not stuck on anything other than a balanced budget,” he said.

“The sad part of it is,” he was quoted as saying, “that there are not enough people who care. If the public cared maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

This is, in a nutshell, the debate that’s going on all over the country. Donations and ticket sales are down, and orchestras and opera companies are having to figure out ways either to make do with less or to come up with new models. Historically, these institutions have not always been that well run, and board members have seemed increasingly inclined to bring in businesspeople from outside the music world to help get them back on track — which has led to some of the worst standoffs in the field. The solution lies somewhere in the middle: many orchestras and opera companies may not have been well-run (it’s a truism that the recession has been picking off the low-hanging fruit), and some business sense is helpful, but on the other hand these organizations are not businesses and can’t entirely respond to the same logic as businesses. It’s also true that over the years, the musicians’ union has succeeded in gaining considerable benefits for its members, and that organizations may not be able to afford so many perks in future. Yet some institutions — like the Baltimore Symphony — have managed to weather crises by getting players and management to work together; the adversarial stand of many of these lockouts is what’s particularly troubling.

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The Met Opera has set one potentially useful precedent. This week, a federal mediator is wading into the Atlanta waters: Allison Beck, the acting director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who helped steer the Met negotiations to their resolution this summer. “Our fervent hope,” said Virginia Hepner, the WAC’s president and CEO, in a statement, “is that a federal mediator will bring calm to the protests, picketing and petitions and get us back to meaningful progress at the negotiating table.” One key difference: in Atlanta, the lockout has already begun.

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