Tag Archives: WAC

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.

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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.

@GourdMuseum

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?

The Quotable WAC

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A few gems from the Woodruff Arts Center Leadership:

“We must make sure the management structure is as efficient as it needs to be without compromising the artistic direction at each of the divisions…The Woodruff Arts Center board has no business telling Robert Spano about the musical direction of the symphony.” – Larry Gellerstedt, Chair, Woodruff Arts Center Board of Trustees, in an interview with Maria Saporta of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 2012

Fast-forward:
Mr. Spano said he was troubled by a provision in the latest management proposal that would give it discretion over whether to fill positions, which could further shrink the ensemble. – New York Times, Sept. 2014

…It was important for Hepner and her board to not make “the symphony a scapegoat for everything that’s wrong” at the [Woodruff Arts] Center. “I think it’s easy for everything to get blamed on the symphony,” she said. “But there are other issues.”  – Penny McPhee, President of the Arthur Blank Family Foundation, in an interview with Maria Saporta of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 2012

Easy to blame everything on the Symphony. Hmmm…

“We all have a real desire to grow the collective audience in Atlanta and the region and the state. There’s more to do,” Hepner said. “But I can tell you, it will be a lot more fun to grow the organization.” – Virginia Hepner, President and CEO, Woodruff Arts Center, in an interview with Maria Saporta of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 2012

(Apparently, “growing the organization” means rewarding management failure with large bonuses.)

“We’ll never sacrifice the quality of the art…To me, it’s all about artistic excellence and access…My personal thrill would be that everybody in the community got to see what we do.” Virginia Hepner, in an interview with WABE Radio, Aug. 2012

Fast-forward:
“The lockout is essentially the board and management punishing the orchestra… It’s a one-sided attempt to force the orchestra to its collective knees. It also paints the orchestra as this intransigent group of musicians. But in fact they have shown extraordinary willingness to come to a common agreement, as what happened two years ago proves. The fact that it should have come to a lockout again is simply devastating.” – ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, in an interview with the Guardian UK, Sept. 2014

Atlanta Magazine: You also have to keep the artists happy, an issue that got attention from the ASO musicians strike. [Note: The 2012 event the interviewer refers to WAS NOT A STRIKE. It was a unilateral, management-imposed LOCKOUT. Apparently, Ms. Hepner did nothing to correct or clarify the important distinction for the interviewer or the readers.] 
Virginia Hepner: “The symphony is very well-run. We want it to be a world-class orchestra…that is extremely expensive… the symphony was $20 million in debt. We couldn’t find any more ways to go without asking the musicians to participate. And I really appreciate the fact that they did. It was essential to ensuring that we have a symphony in the future.”
“I’m a huge Atlanta fan, and I believe we can do anything we set our minds to. I’m pretty optimistic. I have to be; I work in the arts.” – Atlanta Magazine interview with Virginia Hepner, Dec. 2012

“Very well-run.” Really? REALLY? 

“I tell my colleagues here, the most important thing for me to do is bring resources so that they can fulfill their artistic vision.”  – Virginia Hepner, in an interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle, March 2013

(I don’t remember ever hearing this from her, but, then again, we really aren’t “colleagues” since you locked us out…)

“If you are comfortable with the people you hire, you have to let them do their job.”  – Doug Hertz, Chairman of WAC Board of Governors, in a interview with Barbara Kaufman of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, May 2013

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I would like very much to do my job now.

“I learned a long time ago that everybody’s replaceable.”
“I’ve never seen a for-profit business get more out of an investment than artists do—they’re so creative in terms of how they produce what they do with minimal investment.” – Virginia Hepner, in an interview with GA Center for Nonprofits, Winter 2013

In Ms. Hepner’s defense, when she mentioned being “replaceable” she was apparently referring to some hypothetical future situation in which she herself might be replaced.  Can we pencil in a date for that one?
As for “minimal investment,” how minimally should anyone invest in the ASO? Way to encourage philanthropy!

“I think that the measure of both an individual and somebody representing a company is, in fact, the relationships that we have. Because you’re not going to have long-term relationships unless you’ve built up a trust. And that’s a trust with your customers, a trust with your suppliers, and frankly, a trust with your associates.” – Doug Hertz, Chairman of the WAC Board of Governors, in a promotional video for United Distributors, March 2014

So, is the reason you’ve locked us out because you don’t trust us? Or should we not trust you, since you apparently aren’t interested in a long-term relationship?

Keep those gems coming, WAC! We’re listening!

The Lockout Cocktail, or, Fiddling While Romanstein Squirms

lockout cocktail

So, my ATL Symphony Musician colleagues had a little concert last Monday night. Not a lavish affair, nobody wore tuxes, there was no valet to park the cars. In fact, it was crowded (standing room only), loud (it was in a rock music venue, after all), drinks were spilled, voices were raised. Not your typical classical music concert – more of a party, really.

A party with some of the most glorious and heartbreaking and joyful music we’ve ever played.

What was the occasion? Why such revelry? Didn’t this concert take place mere hours after ASO and Woodruff Arts Center management announced the cancellation of all services through November 8th? Why weren’t the musicians desperately racing to management, hats in hands, begging them to take us back under their sheltering wings? Surely, the daunting prospect of being without a paycheck or benefits for months on end should have made us cower in fear for our very survival!

Instead, we made music, we laughed, we cheered, we made new friends, we gathered around that which we hold most dear: music.

Our management has very thoughtfully made available to the public a chart titled “What’s On The Table.” Nevermind that it’s extremely biased; nevermind that it’s misleading. What strikes me most about it is what it doesn’t say: it neglects to mention the one thing that the musicians bring to the table, the thing about which management has demonstrated stunning ignorance, the very reason for the symphony’s existence: music.

Great music, in fact. The best music ever created, heard, or imagined. And we can provide it. That’s what we bring to the table. We play great music, and we play it really well. We bat 1.000, we knock it out of the park. WAC/ASO leadership, what do you do well? Lead your organization to greater heights? Win Grammy awards? Fundraise? Dissemble? Shift funds? Order your underlings to delete Facebook posts? Spend bonuses? Work on your tan?

We had a concert last Monday night because we recognize the need in our community for great music. Judging by public interest in the concerts we’re organizing, we’re not the only ones who sense that need.

We’re going to keep presenting concerts, serving our audience, our community, sharing with them our love for great music. We are the new stewards of art in Atlanta, and Atlanta will show you that they do value world-class symphonic music.

So go ahead, “leaders,” try and implement your “contemporary model” of running an orchestra. Try and tell our audience that they’re not sophisticated enough to tell the difference between excellence and whatever it is you’d settle for. Try and sell Atlanta a slick, shallow package of adequate. I, for one, have more faith in my community, and I know you won’t succeed. I know that the Atlanta arts community won’t let you succeed. And after you’re gone, the need for great music will survive, and we’ll be here to provide it.

And years from now, we’ll sit around post-concert, and, feeling nostalgic, sip our Lockout Cocktails, trying to remember the names of the people who tried to grind us to destruction, those that failed. We’ll toast the new era of visionary leadership that this despicable lockout inspired to action, we’ll toast our artistic success, our 40th Grammy, our new concert hall. We’ll toast the music we make together, for our city.

The Incredible Shrinking Orchestra

My Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bass section should have eight players. That’s standard for a major symphony orchestra. It takes all eight of us, sweating, straining, pulling every decibel of tone out of our big, cumbersome instruments to even begin to balance the low brass that sit perched behind us, the trombones and tuba that belt out that bold, exultant sound that makes audiences get goosebumps and leap to their feet at the end of Shostakovich 5 or Pictures at an Exhibition. And our low brass can really deliver. They deliver so thoroughly that by the end of an evening trying to balance the sound that the conductor demands from them, my ears are ringing, my back aches, and the tendons in my wrists and elbows are begging for Advil.

My bass section should have eight players. But right now we have five. Five to do the work of eight. Not to get too personal, but in the past two seasons we’ve lost two to cancer and one to retirement. And one of the remaining five is dealing with a job-induced repetitive stress injury. And another is anticipating retirement very soon.

So, we hire substitute players. And we hire the best. Atlanta’s not known as a particularly benevolent environment for freelancers. And the incredibly talented and versatile local players we call usually have day jobs, teaching our kids from pre-k through college and beyond, making an incalculable contribution to our culture, and traveling around the entire southeast, making sure that great music is available to everyone in Atlanta and beyond. So, when our cherished local colleagues aren’t available, we often have to hire subs from other parts of the country, sometimes flying them (and their huge, oversized instrument cases) to Atlanta, putting them up in hotels, paying for parking vouchers. And since many of the subs we use can only commit to a week here or there, when they can easily take weeks off from their orchestra jobs in Miami or San Antonio, we end up paying for more flights, and our section looks like it has a revolving door at the back.

And, talented as these subs are, they aren’t steeped in the music-making culture and traditions of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; they don’t always blend their sound the right way, they don’t bounce their bows at the same angle in martele passages, they hold ties a bit longer than we do in Mozart, they don’t appreciate the fine distinction that our Music Director expects us to make between sforzando and fortepiano in Brahms. Sort of like a championship baseball team trying to turn a triple play with an All-Pro shortstop that was just traded from another team. He may be a phenomenal player, but we’ve been turning that triple play together for years. So we spend time we shouldn’t have to clearing up these little discrepancies, time we should be spending unifying our interpretation to the conductor’s vision.

And when our chorus, the mighty Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the best chorus in the world, the chorus whose legendary recordings are used as reference by God’s heavenly choir of angels, performs with us, these subs aren’t necessarily as accustomed to the subtleties of technique that such a collaboration demands. We lifers, we know how to blend with the chorus, how to support them, how to breathe with them, how to make miracles happen. I’ve seen more than one sub simply stop playing and simply listen, dazzled into paralysis by the staggering beauty of the music coming from that chorus. I myself reacted that way in my first season with the ASO.

And when a piece is programmed that calls for a smaller complement, something Baroque perhaps, and we lifers should look forward to some well-earned respite, when we can put down those cumbersome, injury-inducing instruments and go backstage to ice our shoulders, instead, we pull extra duty, staying on stage to better preserve the integrity of the cherished ASO sound. And so we’re even more prone to injury, and so the cycle perpetuates.

And our management – not our artistic management, mind you, but our un-artistic President, wants to have total control in determining whether we replace missing players. No sensible observer has any doubt that he would exert that control to do the “fiscally responsible” thing: shrinking the orchestra. Turning us into a lean, mean, mediocrity machine.

I wonder how it is that by further reducing the complement, the number of career ASO musicians dedicated to this community, the WAC hopes to save money? By avoiding programming the big, bombastic Romantic-era warhorses that sell out concerts, in favor of more modestly orchestrated pre-1820-or-so music? And by sacrificing the brilliant luster and the uncanny ensemble skills of a legendary orchestra in favor of a shrinking, demoralized, propped-up community band?

Why would audiences get excited about that? Why would donors trying to preserve and perpetuate great art be interested in supporting that?

My five-member bass section has a total of ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS of service to the city of Atlanta. And we apply to every performance everything we’ve learned in those years, every nuance, every missing accent, every awkward page turn. That’s what makes the ASO better than good; it puts us on a level with the greatest orchestras in the most cultured cities in the world.

And that’s what’s at stake here. That’s the iceberg that our WAC leadership is steering us into – the wholesale destruction of a legendary institution seven decades in the making. They get the lifeboats, the city of Atlanta gets the frigid sea.

Titanic460

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.

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