Labor Tensions Hit High Note at Atlanta Symphony

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The Atlanta Symphony remains scheduled for a fall visit to Carnegie Hall on October 27, an annual concert that is usually seen as a celebratory homecoming for its music director, Robert Spano. He previously led the Brooklyn Philharmonic to artistic highs from 1996 to 2004.

But financial and labor troubles now plague the 67-year-old Atlanta orchestra, and much uncertainty surrounds its fall season.

On Saturday night, the contract between the ASO and its musicians expired after both sides failed to agree on several key provisions including compensation packages, weekly salaries, the size of the orchestra and the length of the season.

Management is asking the musicians to take a near 20 pay cut in in the form of a 12-week furlough in order to eliminate a $20 million accumulated deficit. Players are willing to slice 11 percent off their compensation, but only if staff takes the same cut. The starting base salary in the orchestra is $88,400.

Also on the table is a cut in the number of players from 95 to 89.

The $20 million hole appears to have opened up quite suddenly. According to figures published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the accumulated debt grew from $1.1 million in 2003 to a projected $19.8 million in 2013. Expenses have mushroomed. Last year, while the orchestra brought in $40 million in revenue, it spent $45 million.

For now, negotiations continue. In a statement Sunday the orchestra said, “While the current contract between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Federation of Musicians expired on August 25, 2012, both parties are continuing to work towards a solution. Negotiations are ongoing. We have some serious budget issues to address but we are all striving for the same thing — a thriving music community.”

Other drama has developed around the negotiations including questions of "play synching." Earlier this month, it emerged that the orchestra played – to its own surprise – along with a prerecorded track at an Il Divo concert at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. The mix that was piped over the PA system had very little of the ASO, if any, and lots of an entirely different orchestra.

“The Il Divo singers were live, but the orchestra was relegated to the role of visual window dressing,” reported ArtsATL.com.

The Atlanta Symphony is hardly the only orchestra in the process of negotiating new contracts in a difficult economic climate. In Minnesota, both the Minneapolis Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are both staring down multi-million dollar deficits projected for the 2012-13 season. Minnesota Public Radio offers this primer on the situation in the Twin Cities.