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Atlanta Symphony Locked Out

The Atlanta Symphony performs at New York City's Carnegie Hall in 2011.
Jennifer Taylor
The Atlanta Symphony performs at New York City's Carnegie Hall in 2011.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its musicians are at an impasse. The players' contract expired at the end of last month. The symphony is facing a $20 million budget deficit, and it's seeking millions in concessions from the musicians. Both sides say they want to reach an agreement, but they've left the bargaining table, putting the orchestra's 68th season in jeopardy.

The musicians are locked out of their home at the Woodruff Arts Center. They're not being paid, and their health benefits have been cut off. No rehearsals are scheduled, but the symphony's youth programs are still taking place. Flutist Rachel Anders, who is 14, is still practicing for her Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra audition with mentor Christina Smith, the principal flute for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Smith has been a member of the symphony for two decades, and she's distressed by the lockout. "It's been pretty devastating to the orchestra," Smith says.

The Atlanta Symphony's management says it needs to make $5.2 million in cuts to the musicians' salaries over the next two years in order to balance the budget. The players say they've agreed to $4 million in cuts, but Smith says they can't go beyond that.

"It's not right. We have been willing to cut ourselves to the bone. You can't have a great orchestra when you lower the salary so much," Smith says.

The orchestra's president and CEO, Stanley Romanstein, says the symphony has run deficits for nearly a decade and cannot afford to spend more than it has.

"We share a common goal in wanting organizations that are artistically vibrant and financially stable. We're artistically vibrant right now, but we're not financially stable, and we need to take care of our business now so we can still be in business tomorrow," Romanstein says.

Romanstein says the musicians' salaries have increased more than 20 percent since 2006, while staff salaries have decreased. The players union disputes that analysis, saying their salaries have gone up 16 percent, slightly more than the rate of inflation.

Atlanta is not the only American orchestra facing problems. The Cleveland Orchestra's musicians are working without a contract, and the Indianapolis Symphony has canceled concerts after contract talks broke down. Some here fear the same fate.

Jesse Rosen with the League of American Orchestras says ticket sales alone can't sustain orchestras, and that some groups are experimenting with new ways to raise money and reach audiences.

"It's a challenge for boards and managements and musicians together to adapt to what is a changed business and cultural environment," Rosen says.

For example, the New York Philharmonic held a couple of concerts in the Park Avenue Armory where audience seats were interspersed among musicians. The Cincinnati Orchestra is among those with "tweet" sections, and the Houston Orchestra partners with NASA on The Planets, a classical soundtrack for NASA's space images.

"I don't think the field is far enough into that to know which of these things are going to work. There's a lot in play, and there's a lot of stuff being figured out," Rosen says.

Some suggest the Atlanta Symphony needs to get better at fundraising. But the symphony management says it's doing what it can. It points out that the state is not helping much, providing the lowest per capita arts funding in the country.

The musicians and management here both say they want to continue working toward a contract, although no new talks are scheduled. This week, Rachel Anders will try out for the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. But while the youth programs go on, it's unclear whether the symphony orchestra itself will have its season opening concert during the first week of October.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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