Monthly Archives: October 2014

Since you asked, Ms. Hepner…

Woodruff Arts Center President and CEO Virginia Hepner says, “We continue to ask the musicians for constructive ideas to help us address these challenges, and we are frustrated that they have turned a deaf ear to the situation.”

Okay, Ms. Hepner, let me apologize for causing you any frustration. Perhaps being locked out of my job, denied my salary and health care coverage, and treated like a pawn in some Kafka-esque chess game have caused the deafness you bemoan. Deaf though I may be, I am not mute. I offer to you the following Constructive Ideas, in the interest of helping you address these challenges:

Constructive Idea #1: END THE LOCKOUT. This may seem counter-intuitive to you; after all, the ASO’s own spokesperson claimed that the orchestra saves $25,000 to $30,000 every day the lockout continues. By my calculations, you’ve already saved between $1.125 and $1.35 million in musician compensation since the lockout began 45 days ago. Is this your much-touted “contemporary operating model”? An un-orchestra? An anti-philharmonic? A group that is so efficient, so well-run, that it doesn’t even need to function? With savings like that, maybe donors will start earning dividends.

How much would the WAC save if the five highest-paid non-artistic employees of the WAC weren’t paid during the lockout either? Using the most recent 990 available (from 2012), the five highest paid non-artistic WAC employees (President, CEO, Executive VP/CFO, ASO President, and VP for Business Development) earned a combined $1,511,029. If they were forced to go without their salaries (and bonuses) like the entire orchestra (by the way, can I have a bonus for not doing my job? That seems to be the WAC’s policy) – the WAC would save an additional $4,139 a day. Shouldn’t these executives, who care as deeply about the future of the ASO as we musicians (see my previous post, “The Quotable WAC”), be willing to share in the sacrifice? Maybe you’d consider donating your bonuses to the Constructive Ideas for Musicians with Deaf Ears Fund. Then we could afford to benefit the orchestra by staying locked out longer. And we have a proven track record of benefiting the orchestra: remember the $5.2 million in concessions we made in 2012? I’d gladly do my part by accepting your bonus. Make your check payable to “ATL Symphony Musicians Foundation.”

But consider the costs of continuing the lockout. How many donors are reconsidering where they direct their generosity? Does cutting off salary and benefits of your valued employees encourage philanthropy? Does demonstrating to the arts community that you’re more interested in slashing your product and reducing your orchestra to a sweat shop for interns (see Press Statement 10-3-14)- does that sound like the kind of arts organization people would rally behind? Should benefactors trust that your organization will be well-run after this round of cuts, even though the cuts in 2012 didn’t apparently help anything?

Constructive Idea#2: END THE LOCKOUT. Do you really think that NOT presenting the spectacular performances that our community has come to expect will endear the concert-going public to your contemporary operating model? Has the ticket-buying public been clamoring for a smaller, less experienced orchestra? Has the staff begged you, “Please can we work with unpaid interns? These professionals are so darn…professional!” Of what value is an empty concert hall?

Or maybe your strategy is to pass the savings on to our audience. Imagine their glee when they realize how much money they’d save by not attending the concerts you cancelled! In fact, the WAC is saving so much money, you could probably afford to pay people not to come to the non-concerts by the world-class un-orchestra. Perhaps you could offer them a stipend to sit at home and read the minutes from the latest Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board meeting. And we now have new leverage to lobby for public funding: Atlanta is willing to pay hundreds of millions for a new football stadium that will sit idle most of the year. Why wouldn’t they also pay for a new concert hall to remain empty?

Actually, though, on that same 2012 990, you list among our Program Service Accomplishments, “The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra consistently affirms its position as one of America’s leading orchestras by performing great music, presenting great artists, educating, and engaging the community…The orchestra performs more than 200 concerts each year for a combined audience of more than half a million in a full schedule of performances.” So, perhaps you’d have more credibility if you allowed the orchestra to get back to its core mission.

Constructive Idea #3: END THE LOCKOUT. Seriously, you look like a bunch of petulant bullies, shaking down band geeks for their lunch money. We all knew people like that in middle school, and we expected them to either grow out of it, or end up in prison. We didn’t expect them to pursue leadership positions in prestigious arts non-profits. Who treats employees like that? Do you think the public perceives this to be a fair negotiation, when one side can unilaterally deny any salary or benefits to the other, with no reciprocal consequences? Do you think that Doug Hertz’s public speculation about our collective sanity makes WAC leadership sound well-reasoned, judicious, and wise?

And remember, we’re not just the employees, we’re the product, the very reason the Arts Center exists. We’re the reason people buy tickets and Grammy-winning recordings, we’re what they intend to support when they donate. We are who they applaud for. Would you like applause? Would you like the public and the press to express their appreciation for a job well done? It’s a really great feeling – I should know, I get that feeling after each of the concerts the ATL Symphony Musicians have produced and performed over the past few weeks. Here’s what you can do to earn that feeling: END THE LOCKOUT. Start treating us like valued partners in a vital cultural mission, instead of annoying inconsequential vermin. Stop the starvation tactics and save this orchestra, or step aside and let someone who wants to save it step up.


The Why of Crazy

A journalist from out of town attended our first Mozart Requiem rehearsal on Monday night. He was interested in the mechanics of the WAC lockout of the Atlanta Symphony, and found a moment to ask about the concert planning activities I’ve been involved in. He asked about scheduling, staffing, programming. I’ve been neck deep in concert planning, so I didn’t have much trouble giving him details, anecdotes, horror stories. But then he asked me a question that stumped me, left me without cogent response.

“Why do you do this?”

Up till that question, I had been quick and thorough in my responses, verbose-ish, at times perhaps approaching the outskirts of eloquence. But this question derailed me.

What does that mean, why do I do this? I’ve been playing music, promoting music, composing music, teaching music for more than four-fifths of my life, and while I often consider how I do it, and fill my calendar with when I do it, and lately a lot of thought has gone into the question of where I do it (since I’m locked out of my place of employment), I’m not sure how much thought I’ve ever devoted to answering why.


It’s an important question, necessary even, if I’m even a bit interested in self-knowledge. Though I confess, I’ve often avoided self-knowledge, in the interest of blissful ignorance.

So, more ignorant than blissful, I sat with the journalist who’d just posed the question that flummoxed me, and I flummoxed ponderously for a bit, wheels turning. Why?

“If you ask someone why they breathe, they can’t even answer you without breathing. Also, you had to breathe to ask the question in the first place.”

Did that make any sense at all? Did I just rip off some Zen koan? Was there somewhere nearby a single hand clapping for my display of wisdom? No, I think I probably sounded like a pretentious ass.

But in a way, it explains the why. Music is necessary to me; it’s not what I choose to do, it’s not what I love to do, it’s what I must do. I’m not sure I even have a choice. Most of my colleagues, if they could pinpoint the moment when they chose to devote their lives to music, would admit that music somehow made the choice for them, that they couldn’t imagine being any other way. I imagine every kind of artist feels this way, and I’d wager there are many people in other professions who would agree, educators, social workers, public servants.

So why are some of us naturally compelled to pursue something so esoteric? After all, most of these pursuits aren’t particularly profitable. No one goes into teaching to get rich; social work wouldn’t be possible without public support and grant money; arts organizations are so notoriously unprofitable that we’ve created special tax status to ensure their survival.

Why do you do this? If I’m right, if the why can only be answered existentially, then the more germane question is: Why must this be done?

Maybe god or the universe or whatever is trying to preserve and perpetuate our species planted these seeds of socially beneficial imperative in our DNA. Maybe our evolution, maybe our very survival depends on crazy people willing, no, needing to create, to express, to connect people trapped in the present with the most beautiful gifts from civilization’s past and the promise of a future filled with even more beauty, truth, connection, love.

A community needs art, because art connects us to one another across time and border and belief in ways that greed and partisanship and conflict cannot. And if it loses those connections, a culture that should thrive will instead wither. And the greatest art has always needed the support of those who understand that it has value beyond its profitability.

Atlanta has a symphony orchestra that has, with the generous (and necessary) support of generations of music lovers, built a legacy of exhilarating performances and benchmark recordings of some of our civilization’s greatest artistic achievements. The ASO has served for decades as an ambassador of the best of our culture. That’s why we do this, because we must. The next question we must answer: Why have we entrusted the nurture of this legacy to those who would tear it down?

A Day in the Life, Part II

Began a sunny October day in a charming, hospitable southern city not far from my Atlanta home. I’m in town subbing with their orchestra, actually subbing for a sub who got called to play with another charming, hospitable southern city, so technically I’m a sub once-removed, or a sub-in-law, or a step-sub, or something like that. Yes, I’m a freelancer this week, one of those itinerant members of the so-called “Freeway Philharmonic” who aren’t residentially woven into the fabric of the orchestra, but rather must weave their roles anew with each visit; I’m trying to “sit in and fit in” and offer my sonic contributions without making any waves. More on this process later…

First things first, though: breakfast. Can’t skip it, love when hotels offer it, never pass it up. Sometimes, if the buffet is good and included, I’ll have an early breakfast as soon as the buffet opens, and come back for an early brunch before they close up shop. This particular experience did not merit a second visit. Eggs apparently extruded from some sadist’s Inedible Round-ish Food-esque Punishment Machine. Pancakes assembled by robots in an ingenious, yet ultimately unsuccessful, conveyor-belt device, and plopped unceremoniously upon my waiting paper plate. Shared this advice with a lovely British family seen waiting for their pancakes a few minutes later: “Y’all might wanna butter the plate first, if you want any hope of peeling the pancake off it.” They expressed gratitude, if warily, now convinced of southern hospitality and eccentricity in equal measure.

Now, several hours devoted to concert planning before my 2 pm rehearsal. The program on the front burner is next week’s Mozart Requiem, with members of our beloved ASO Chorus, their identities now cleverly concealed under the moniker “Atlanta Mozart Choir.” But problems have arisen – seems the venue’s choral risers are too small to accommodate all the singers volunteering to perform with the ATL Symphony Musicians. Venue representatives are worried about stage capacity, fire codes, egress routes, shell placement, all things I figure I’d better learn about really soon, lest the whole project get nuked.

What to do? Uninvite singers? But these are talented, generous, and committed volunteers, who believe in the power of our shared art to effect change in this loathsome lockout. Include everyone already signed up? But that might risk the venue pulling the plug on the event. Hours on the phone with conductors, choral administrators, concert planning partners, relentlessly pacing the hotel room, trying to ameliorate a tense situation. Only possible with the invaluable help of wise, devoted, and ultimately disappointed colleagues willing to make difficult decisions. But we shall prevail, and we shall sing and play Mozart, and art shall be victorious. Bruised, but victorious.

Onward, to the gig! So, I’m sub-subbing with another city’s orchestra. Very talented and friendly people; some are locals, some travel hundreds of miles to play here. Most of them have worked together quite frequently, I gather, so I sit in the back of the bass section and try to lay low. (Bad bass pun.) Bass players are generally known to be easygoing and amicable, so my new section-mates allow me to slip effortlessly into the bass-centric conversations before rehearsal begins. Good humor abounds: “Try this new rosin. It’s made of candy. You can lick your bow when you’re done playing.” And, “Oh wow, you string your bass balls-out? Awesome.” (That’s not as bawdy as it might sound to non-bassists.)

But “sitting in and fitting in” isn’t just about camaraderie; it’s also about intense awareness of what’s going on all around you. Where are the trombones breathing? How much bow is the concertmaster using on the quarter note accents? Unfamiliar conductor: does she cue with her eyes, or her right hand, or her left hand, or her imagination?

I make a rookie mistake: carrying the traditions of my own orchestra to the gig, instead of being a proverbial blank slate. In one spot, I make a subtle portamento through a descending melodic tritone; that’s how we do it in Atlanta. Alas, that’s not how they do it here, which I discover after demonstrating my ignorance. My gaffe is greeted with good-natured glances. I quickly scribe the injunction against schmalzandos in my part, letting my pencil just-barely-audibly fall to rest on the stand as a gesture of respect: I’ve learned my lesson. Next time through the passage, however, the entire section slides the shift in jest, letting me know that they’re paying attention too.

All this, leading up to breaktime, when I trade roles from humble bass section sub to bold, articulate Arts Advocate! It just so happens that Very Famous Cellist is soloing with This Orchestra, and, knowing this, colleagues from Back Home have encouraged me to solicit Very Famous Cellist’s support in our efforts to end the lockout. So, as soon as break is called, I stride right up to Very Famous Cellist, announcing, “The Atlanta Symphony sends its greetings!”

Very Famous Cellist’s brow furrows, and he exudes empathy and concern, and asks, “What the f*** is going on down there?” Suddenly nervous, I stammer a response about WAC Board leadership being hostile and trying to destroy a great artistic legacy, and Very Famous Cellist, widely respected as one of the most generous musicians alive, asks what he can do to help.

Score! Very Famous Cellist wants to help! I figure I should start with a modest plea: “Would you consider making a statement urging management to end the lockout? I could record a video on my phone. Your support would mean so much to us in Atlanta.”

Very Famous Cellist seems willing, but insists, “I don’t want to take sides.” Offers instead to make a less partisan statement about great art in general, about how music should not be held hostage by labor disputes.

As I nod in agreement, Personal Assistant of Very Famous Cellist intervenes, pointedly demanding more detail about who I am and what I want with her Very Famous Cellist. No offense, Personal Assistant is doing a damn fine job of protecting him from people like me, trying to take advantage of Very Famous Cellist’s generous nature. I introduce myself, and Personal Assistant says, “We’re aware of the situation in Atlanta, and we’re very concerned,” but her obvious primary concern is, “How quickly can I get rid of this person harassing my boss?”

As it turns out, Personal Assistant need not have worried, because Very Famous Cellist’s generous nature is presently endearing him to the orchestra. “Here, try my cello!” repeated to anyone nearby, and an adoring crowd gathers, preventing any further harassment.

Later, on stage waiting for the concert to begin, I warm up on the Bach I once played for Very Famous Cellist, years ago, when he generously (of course) consented to hear me and offer advice. As I play, still reminding myself of the “greater motivic awareness” he counseled, who but the Very Famous Cellist himself should appear in the stage left wings! Making goofy faces at the bass section! He’s making small talk with the guy beside me; is he avoiding eye contact with me, like a jury about to announce a defendant’s guilt, because he’s changed his mind about helping us? No, I’m reading way too much into this. I do not, however, resume warming up my Bach; I’ve been bounced off my game, and now I need to focus on the music on the stand in front of me. Ah, yes, the arpeggio in the fourth movement: a knuckle-cruncher. I do about thirty reps.

Reminding myself during intermission what was to be gained by venturing nothing, I pin a note to Very Famous Cellist’s dressing room door, reiterating my request. I’m rewarded later with a proffered business card: the Personal Assistant’s email address. In my mind, I’m already writing tomorrow morning’s email solicitation for help, trying to maintain a delicate balance between forlorn humility and self-assured righteousness. I allow myself optimism, of a sort; in the words of Virginia Hepner, CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, “I’m pretty optimistic. I have to be; I work in the arts.” True that, Virginia, true that.

Scorecard for the trip:
Expenses: gas; 1 night moderately cheap hotel; 2 meals at cheap restaurants (<$10/meal); 3 bottles of 5-hour energy drink so I don’t fall asleep at the wheel (or the bass); the hassle of rescheduling lessons because of an unexpected road trip; and putting 2 dogs in daycare for a day because my wife has to work late and we don’t want the chair chewed again (see previous blog post, “A Day in the Life of a Locked-Out Orchestra Musician“).
Income: enough to cover expenses.
Intangibles: The possibility of Very Famous Cellist offering a statement of support; the opportunity to give a demo CD to a talented young conductor (I am, after all, a composer); making new friends, connections, colleagues; and nurturing my soul with beautiful music, and sharing that joy with an appreciative audience.

Hope they call again. Working feels good.