ASO

Americans were left confounded when their government fell into a shutdown in early October 2013. On a smaller and less nationally-recognized scale, Atlanta’s classical music community was left confounded earlier this month when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) began to slip into a shutdown of its own.

The ASO has been unable to reach musician contract agreements and has fallen into its second lockout in two years, physically locking out its musicians from Midtown’s Woodruff Arts Center, the orchestra’s home base. This time, however, the lockout is accompanied by the orchestra’s $2.5 million deficit and arguably much more controversy.

National Public Radio’s (NPR) Tom Huizenga explains that, similar to the 2012 lockout, the orchestra’s musicians and managers have failed to agree upon contract conditions. The results of the disagreements have been disastrous, and the players “have literally been prevented from entering the Woodruff Arts Center and stripped of their salaries and health benefits,” Huizenga wrote.

With expired contracts and a now ambiguous negotiation deadline, there is no doubt that relations between musicians and the managers are strained beyond an easy fix.

Ameliorating the situation may be even more difficult than some think, however, considering two actions that have been taken against the musicians and the community.

First, the ASO management has disabled the commenting feature on its website due to the multitude of negative comments posted in reaction to the lockout. Essentially refusing to acknowledge concerns from critics and the general public, the orchestra’s management is driving itself further away from speedy reconciliation.

Additionally, as stated by Slipped Disc website founder Norman Lebrecht, the orchestra’s “board and management may soon resort to using bodyguards, as they did in Minnesota.” Earlier this year, Minnesota’s orchestra experienced a lockout of its own that lasted for 15 months. The musicians were unable to perform with their orchestra for 488 days, until finally a three-year contract that included salary and health care cuts was settled. Mirroring this lockout is the ASO’s current situation, but nevertheless, the orchestra’s musicians have refused to bow down.

Instead, they staged a subdued but attention-grabbing demonstration on Tuesday at the Woodruff Arts Center. The musicians paraded with signs reading quotes such as, “excellence is not negotiable.”

No, excellence should not be negotiable, which is understood by both the musicians and the management of the ASO. But in the presence of a preexisting $2.5 million debt, stingy managers’ negotiations fail and salaries tend to remain stickier than desired.

The effects of this drama have inflicted frustration upon musicians and classical music enthusiasts alike. The community surrounding the orchestra has especially begun to feel the tension, including members of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO) and its corresponding music programs.

College freshman Lauren Firestone, for example, who plays the oboe with the ASYO, has previously lost valuable time and experiences due to ASO controversies. Firestone and others cannot attend auditions in the normal venue, nor can they guarantee that they will perform onstage until the lockout ends. The ASYO conductors are musicians from the adult orchestra, who are currently unable to enter orchestra facilities.

While the general public often exhibits little to no opinions on classical music in contemporary society, Firestone claims, “People who appreciate it can’t even appreciate it.”

That’s all to say, the orchestra’s managers have been focused on making money rather than supporting their performers, and as Firestone notes, “Classical music is a small, tight community” with no surplus of supporters. Headquartered in several major metropolitan areas including Atlanta, the inclusive classical music community should focus on communicating to solve problems instead of allowing members of the community to work for only his or her individual benefit.

While the ASO’s lockout – and near shutdown – may not be as universally concerning as the 2013 United States government shutdown, Atlanta’s musical community has certainly been negatively impacted by this plight.

Performers have been deprived of their salaries and practice time, while listeners have lost the opportunity to hear the performances.

In pursuit of a successful 2014 season, the ASO must continue toward agreements for all parties, and this should not include implementing bodyguards, as the Minnesota orchestra did, or muting public opinion, as the loyalty of the public is imperative to the ASO’s success. “Excellence is not negotiable;” it never has been and never will be.

–By Emily Sullivan