Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Is the Atlanta Symphony going under?

A deadline looms Saturday that could determine the future of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which has been locked out since Sept. 7. You'll find the most recent story from last week's Atlanta Journal here, but the gist is this:

The musicians' ranks have been reduced over the years by retirement, deaths and departures to 76 contract players. Management wants to keep the number there for the indefinite future, with the hope (but no promise) that the total will rise to 90 over time. The musicians want a written commitment to increase the orchestra to a minimum of 88 by the 2017-18 season. Management has also offered a graduated 4.5 percent raise over four years; the musicians have proposed a raise closer to 10 percent.

So far, the ASO hasn't played a note of its season. Federal mediators have come and gone without finding a solution.

Apparently, this mess has been exacerbated by countless factors, including other financial moves made by Woodruff Arts Center management, the nonprofit parent group for the orchestra. I don't know all of those, but here are three thoughts:

1) Both sides probably have a point. For whatever reasons, management may not now be able to support an orchestra of the size to which players and audiences are accustomed. As far as I can tell, no ASO recordings have been issued for more than three years, so that source of income has dried up.

On the other hand, musicians are right to say they cannot play certain pieces properly -- Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss -- without an adequate number of players onstage, and they won't sound the same if they consistently sub in per-service musicians. (Although the Charlotte Symphony imported two dozen people last week to play Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," and it went well.)

2) The loss of an orchestra ripples throughout a community, not just a concert hall. Ballet and opera performances suffer. School groups don't get exposed to masterpieces. Outreach programs dry up. If this orchestra goes under, the people who buy weekend concert tickets represent a small fraction of the ones who will suffer from the fallout.

3) If this can happen in one of the nation's top dozen cities in population, it can happen virtually anywhere. The ASO has won 17 Grammy awards, mostly for its beautifully engineered recordings on the Telarc label, since the middle of the 1980s. Now its entire 70th season is in doubt.

Major cities with long-standing orchestras get used to having them around, as if they were parks or libraries. They're more like teeth: If you don't take proper care of them, they can decay quickly.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The causes of the struggles of civic symphony orchestras are many:

~Loss of interest in classical music. Young people have a steady diet of electronica, country, hip-hop and badly sung national anthems.
~What interest exists can be met with downloads (even if the original recordings are decades old.) We graze at clips of sound.
~Time. As in, people no longer have the time to devote to attending concerts.
~Money. As in, ...(above)
~Another part of the digital revolution is the ability to recreate sounds on a computer. The real thing (and the cost of a real person playing a real instrument) is no longer as necessary.
~Patience. Another little-noticed effect of the digital revolution is reduced attention span. Sitting still for 4 movements seems pointless to many people.
~Atlanta itself. The adjacent High Museum sucks a lot of the air out of Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center. The ASO has lots of competition for the local entertainment dollar: sports, both professional and collegiate, Fox Theater, Alliance Theater, and as everywhere, home 'theaters.'

We live in an era when even the late New York City Opera can collapse and vanish. That's ominous and regrettable (must be why I am bombarded with marketing materials from the Metropolitan Opera.)

Lawrence Toppman said...

Well put, alas. Apparently, there are even more problems unique to Atlanta than in other places.

The saddest thing is that people think listening to music on portable devices, computers or even home theaters is close to the equivalent of listening in a concert hall. That's like eating a microwaved frozen meal and convincing yourself it tastes the same as a fresh-cooked dinner in a restaurant.

But if you can't tell the difference -- and a generation of listeners may not be able to -- then on some level, there really is no difference for you.

I'm not sure money is an issue, though. You can get a Charlotte Symphony ticket for $19. That's the cost of two movies. Most people, even students, can afford that.

Mark Caplan said...

As Pres. Obama might put it, European culture in America is on the wrong side of history.

Lawrence Toppman said...

Not sure we can relegate Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Philip Glass and many other American composers to the dustbin of European history, though.