We’ll leave the light on for you…

Atlanta’s a great city. Ninth-largest metropolitan area in the US. We hosted the Olympics, won a world series, built a kick-ass aquarium. We’re home to some big industry leaders:  Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta, CNN. We’ve been in the news a lot lately because we have the resources and the balls to treat ebola patients flown in from Africa.

We have chefs that win Food Network competitions, we’re rich in Civil War history, we have greater tree coverage than any other major city (36%, compared to the national average 27%). We have more streets with “Peachtree” in their name than we can handle.

I’m a bit biased; I’ve made Atlanta my home since 1994, which according to some, makes me a native. Or at least a local. I love Atlanta. Safe to say that the overwhelming majority of my ATL Symphony colleagues feel similarly.

I don’t mind visiting other cities, of course. But there’s nowhere I’d rather make my home than here. Not Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati, D.C., Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Seattle, Asheville, Memphis, Boston, even New York.

These cities have their charms, and there’s something else they have: our musicians. See, since this reprehensible lockout perpetrated by the Woodruff Arts Center, parent organization of the Atlanta Symphony, the fine orchestras of these (and other) cities have been calling my colleagues to come and play, for a week, or a month, or a season. And we’re grateful for their offers, since here in Atlanta, we’re not being paid, we’re not getting the opportunities to bring great music to our community, we’re apparently not wanted by the very organization charged with nurturing and sustaining us. They won’t even let us in the building.

I know these orchestras (and others) have been calling, because as chair of the Concert Planning Sub-Committee, I’ve been trying to sign my colleagues up to play benefit concerts. And all of them tell me they’re eager to play – if they’re in town. But when your employer refuses to let you work, you do what you must to make ends meet. I don’t begrudge my colleagues a bit. When your skills are as specialized as ours, it’s not like you can just call a corporate headhunter and find something local.

So, what is it about these other cities that give them the resources to support a major symphony orchestra, while Atlanta allegedly cannot? Are they wealthier, more philanthropic? No, according to a 2012 Atlantic Cities Magazine study, Atlanta ranked 10th on their list of the 30 wealthiest U.S. cities. Atlanta ranks sixth in the nation in GDP. According to Charity Navigator, we rank 15th in total contributions to charity. We are the 17th largest economy in the world. 

And our leadership claims that this city can’t support a major symphony orchestra?

Or is it that the Woodruff Arts Center doesn’t want to support a major symphony orchestra, an orchestra that has won 27 Grammy Awards, has made some of the most definitive recordings of some of the greatest works of musical art ever composed, an orchestra that brings culture and beauty and solace and exhilaration to thousands each year? Is it that coping sensibly with the ASO’s debt isn’t the best use of the WAC’s $103,000,000 of unrestricted net assets?

Is the WAC really so willing to let our treasured artistic talent migrate to other cities? Are they satisfied with the cultural contributions of Real Housewives and Honey Boo Boo? Those pillars of culture turn a profit, at least.

Is that why the WAC is so hostile to the symphony? Because great art isn’t worth supporting? Because we aspire to mediocrity? Because our city strives to be provincial, rather than “world-class”? After all, to borrow a phrase from WAC CEO Virginia Hepner, it’s up to anyone to decide what’s world-class, and what a great city should be.

Well, without a sea-change in leadership, Atlanta will keep losing its most talented musicians to orchestras with leadership that aspires to greatness. They’ll leave slowly at first, a week here, a week there, while the WAC steers the Titanic straight for the iceberg, because it’s much easier to pilot a lifeboat than an oceanliner. Before long, our musicians will find greener pastures, and the cities that hire them will be richer for it, and my city, my home, will be impoverished by their loss.  And the WAC will have gotten their wish: an orchestra they don’t have to raise a dime for, or negotiate against, or ever worry about again.

empty stage


23 responses to “We’ll leave the light on for you…

  1. It certainly does appear that way to this outsider. And, having followed the Minnesota Orchestra lockout closely…one gets the distinct impression of a puppet CEO (Stanley Romanstein here, Michael Henson in Minnesota) being the figurehead for an agenda that involves weakening and breaking unions.
    The endowment serves to support the orchestra. The orchestra should not be enslaved to the endowment. The values are upside down. No one gives sustainability Grammies or standing ovations, or takes their granddaughter to meet the fiscal statements backstage.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a highly informative, beautifully expressed, and absolutely heartbreaking article ! As others have proven recently, we music lovers, some of whom moved here for the arts, do not have to take such destructive abuse lying down. I want to sing !! More than that, I want to live in a civilized and humane city.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I studied music at GSU 2005-2009. For several years I tried to make a living teaching music to preschool aged children. I had to freelance as there was no school that was willing to hire sometime full-time. Instead of building clients though, I ultimately dwindled down to a few as most places could not, or were not willing to pay my freelance rate, which still wasn’t enough to support my family. In July of 2014, I was hired as a full time music teacher at a preschool in Bend, Oregon.


  4. Great article. You’ve nailed it. Except, Minnesota isn’t a city.


  5. You’ve said it. It is that clear and that simple. May your tribe increase, Brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dont worry, if all the fantastic musicians leave, and they buy out all the tenured ones, you’ll still have a “world class” orchestra…we’ll as far as Hepner’s ear can tell.


  7. And what will be the fate of the volunteer Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus? Without the ASO, the …C has no stage and the …C will receive no invitations to perform in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, Chicago, or any other international city, which Atlanta once aspired to be.


  8. Is there a way for Americans to stand up and support the musicians of Atlanta? If so, WHY AREN’T YOU DOING IT?


  9. Respectfully, this is a glossed-over view of Atlanta. Atlanta has many good points, but it is also crime ridden and hate driven, racially divided and narcissistic. This is the land of hip-hop and bebop. It is quartered racially and economically by 75 and 85 and as an outsider who has only lived here 12 years, I’m sick of all the hating and arguing. I grew up in another large city where the Symphony was accessible to anyone. Although some seats were blue blood and others blue collar, we all enjoyed the same music. The WAC is totally whack. The average person can’t afford a ticket, especially in this economy, and so when they claim ticket sales are down, it is actually just that high priced ticket sales are down. Frankly, I’d like to see the ASO move out of the WAC and leave them behind. Get a building like The Sanctuary and make it your own. Control it yourselves as a collective and cut out the middle man.


    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, I prefer to look at the positive aspects of being an Atlantan. Sure, it has crime and hate and racism and all the same problems that plague every city. But I think that focusing on what’s good about Atlanta motivates me to make things even better, in my own small way, whereas focusing on the problems might leave me feeling embittered and pessimistic.
      Yes, I think that classical music should be more accessible to everyone.
      Yes, I would celebrate the day the ASO breaks free of the WAC; unfortunately, they have total control of our endowment and our fundraising, so extricating ourselves will be quite difficult.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What are the isues at hand between management and the musicians? I’ve yet to see a neutral breakdown of what the musicians want and want management wants. Unfortunately, and typically issues break down into rhetoric and fingerpointing instead of working with each other to find common ground.


    • Not exactly neutral, but here’s Management’s breakdown of the differences.
      The first topic, Health Care, makes it look like the two sides aren’t that far apart. But we wonder, what’s the point of signing a contract if Management can unilaterally change the terms at any time for any reason? We would have no idea from week to week what our contribution would be.
      The second topic, Salary, suggests that the musicians want to get big raises. In fact, we want to make progress toward getting back the huge salary cuts we were forced to take two years ago.
      The third topic, Revenue Surlpus, is complete bullshit. They also generously included similar language in the last contract, knowing full well that no such surplus would ever happen. The WAC is so good at diverting money from the ASO that they might as well promise us 100% of the surplus.
      The fourth topic, Musician Complement, that’s the BIG one. Their version of events: Management would have “flexibility” in filling vacancies. True version: anytime a player retires, or gets a better job, our Music Director would have to go begging to our President to please please please let me hire a new Principal Trombone or Third Horn. Our President would look at the financials and say, “Sorry, can’t afford it. Use subs.” My next blog post will be about why that’s an untenable and ultimately orchestra-killing situation. We want a fixed complement for the same reason that sports teams want to take the field with the proper number of players, because audiences and advertisers and investors and donors want to see and hear excellence, not mediocrity.
      More info here and here.


  11. Beautiful, comprehensive statement of the issues.


  12. I love reading your articles. I have walked on the picket line with the musicians. My son is a member and principle flute of the AYWS and EYSO and is devastated in his senior year that he can’t audition for the ASYO. How do we get rid of this horrible management? I’m sure they won’t listen to us or read our letters of support because I believe those people truly don’t care. How can they allocate money to the High for paper and oil for DEAD artists when their living, breathing artists – the Crown Jewels of Atlanta – are starving?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is a wonderfully well written statement. I have wondered for the past two years why there was no concomitant decrease in salary and number of employees among the ASO administrative staff when the orchestra members accepted their 15% cut. Instead, Stanley Romanstein was rewarded with bonuses for the continued financial losses he claims make this next round of cuts necessary. I love music. I want my symphony back, restored to its full potential. Get these bozos out of the ASO administrative offices before they burn the house down.


    • In fact, the 2012 settlement included the senior staff taking an “aggregate” 6% pay cut. In other words, the total in salary paid to the senior staff would be reduced by 6%, which was easily accomplished by the departure of some of the senior staff. This allowed PhD’s raise and bonuses to fit within the “aggregate” decrease.


  14. A brilliant article, Michael. I hope the short-sighted administrations of the ASO and WAC are beginning to listen to the voices like yours that are being heard around the world!


  15. Virginia Hepner (WAC) is on the advisory committee for Mayor Kasim Reed. Heaven help Atlanta.


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