Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lies on top of lies....

Atlanta Symphony musicians outside the WAC on what
should have been opening night...
In my most recent post, it was noted that the management of the Atlanta Symphony (ASO) had proposed bringing in a federal mediator, now openly identified as Allison Beck, the individual who assisted in the successful negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera.  What is now extremely baffling is how this development has been handled by management itself.  While I have had this information in hand for several days, the ASO only publicly announced it in a Saturday evening (9/27) press release.

Management has made no attempt to negotiate any kind of agreement--even the popular "talk and play" employed by countless such organizations around the globe.  In essence, the orchestra continues to function under the former collective bargaining agreement until a new one is agreed upon.  A part of the ASO statement reads,

“We are pleased that after weeks of an open offer, the musicians’ union has accepted mediation and we’re looking forward to getting back to the negotiating table,” ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein said in the statement. “We are ready to resolve our differences and start the ASO’s 70th anniversary season.”

"Open offer"?  Why hasn't management proposed meeting with the musicians since the lockout began on September 7.  The countdown has been ticking for months and the players lose their health benefits after September 30.  Obviously, someone thinks that he can simply bend the players to his will.

HOWEVER.....a musician's statement reveals an entirely different scenario:

“We received a formal request for mediation on Monday, September 22nd at 10:55am from WAC/ASO management,” the Players’ Association statement explained. “Three hours later, we accepted the suggestion to speak with Ms. Allison Beck, the Acting Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and were told that FMCS officials would be contacting us accordingly, which has not happened yet. …

“The musicians are happy to speak with FMCS Director Beck about pathways forward when she is able to be in touch with us,” the statement from ASO musicians Murphy and Laufer continued. “There is as yet no further agreement about the process.”

So, where's the beef (in this case, the truth)?  As I've known of the mediator's involvement for several days, I'm surprised that ASO waited until Saturday evening for such an announcement.  What does the ASO or the Woodruff Arts Center have to hide.  AND, for that matter, where is the rest of the cash going?  Financial reports indicate that musician compensation is roughly $12 million out of a total budget of $38 million.  AND, what happened to monies previously donated or pledged ($114 million as of 2007) to WAC for a new concert hall, the plans for which were shelved several years ago?

The hall that won't be....
More pictures to come....

So many questions.  So few (honest) answers.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Lots of happenings in Atlanta, and (of course) not at all good....

The saga continues...with pages from other executive's play books.

Earlier this week, the management at the Atlanta Symphony (or is it the Woodruff Art Center--any more it's hard to tell) canceled all concerts between now and November 8.  That we can safely call a "Henson," after the ill-fated CEO in Minnesota, who started putting off concerts until the orchestra did not perform for 16 months.  But then, in a reversal of sorts, Stanley Romanstein (we'll assume) pulled a Peter Gelb and is considering calling in a federal mediator, but--like Henson--it's after the lockout and concert cancellations.  A case of too little, too late--at least for the musicians and patrons of the Atlanta Symphony.

But too many questions remain, such as, what exactly happened to the $5.2 million wage reduction negotiated in the 2012 lockout?  How is it that the ASO is still running multi-million dollar deficits when the musicians are giving back so much?  The orchestra, which has been running deficits for 12 consecutive years, announced a $2 million shortfall for fiscal 2014.

Spano speaks...
Earlier, it was reported here that the two leading conductors of the organization (Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles) came out in a letter supportive of the musicians.  Spano has taken his own views to a higher level in a September 23 interview with the New York Times.  Among his comments:

"This is a dire and critical juncture for the city of Atlanta, which is in danger of losing the flagship of its culture."

“If the 10th-largest urban economy in America is incapable of sustaining its cultural jewel, what does that signal about our country?”

“Our brilliant and creative musicians, who need to be intimately involved in the creation of our path to the future, have been asked to leave the building — and Atlanta is left with a deafening silence.”

Reporter Michael Cooper noted the conductor's dedicated commitment to the orchestra and its community:  this week, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, a volunteer group that was established 44 years ago by Robert Shaw, wrote an open letter in support of the orchestra in which it disclosed that Mr. Spano had made donations to the orchestra and helped fund its tour last May to Carnegie Hall, where it gave acritically acclaimed account of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.”

In the interview, Mr. Spano acknowledged that he had helped cover the costs of the tour.

“There was basically a movement to cancel our appearance,” he said, “at which point I marched in to one of our symphony board meetings and said this is not going to be canceled — there are people who think it should be canceled, I don’t agree with them, I’m putting $50,000 on the table right now. Who’s going to join me? I then started calling people all over the country, and we garnered the support for that engagement within a week.”

To me, it sounds like Romanstein and Co. just need to get on the damn phone.

Bailey Center at Kennesaw State
Meanwhile, this from the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony:

Musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) will perform two free concerts on Friday, September 26th, at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. at the Dr. Bobbie Bailey and Family Performance Center at Kennesaw State University. The musicians will also hold an open rehearsal with School of Music students on Friday afternoon.

The concerts are free and open to the public; seating is first come, first serve and no tickets are required. However, the ATL Symphony Musicians Foundation will be accepting donations onsite.

On Monday, Sept. 22, the School of Music received notice from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management that the ASO concert scheduled for Sept. 26th had been cancelled due to labor negotiations. Ticket holders were contacted by Kennesaw State on Monday regarding exchanges and/or refunds.

Michael Alexander, Interim Director of the School of Music, said, “We are proud of the partnership we have formed with the ASO, and we are disappointed that the concert that we originally planned has been cancelled due to the ongoing negotiations. We continue to hope for a positive resolution. As a School of Music, our job is to support great music and provide an educational opportunity for our students. These free concerts will help us provide a positive outlet for all involved during this difficult time.”

For more information contact the Box Office at 470-578-6650 or

Anyone within driving distance of Atlanta needs to attend...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is bigger better? (Part 2) Not necessarily for acoustics....

Part one of this examination of concert halls posed the original challenge:  Is bigger necessarily better?  How many of these halls might be noted for their acoustics?  Well......Kallie Szczepanski wrote of the following as our "best."  (Her complete commentary is found here.)

Boston Symphony Hall
Look at the shape...
1) Symphony Hall, Boston. The home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops was inaugurated in 1900, and is considered to be among the top three halls world-wide in terms of acoustics. Its tall, boxy shape, shallow balconies, and sound-boosting niches echo (and some say, exceed) the best halls of Europe: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Vienna's Musikverein.

2) Carnegie Hall, New York City. Funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, this is probably the most famous concert hall in North America. Carnegie Hall officially opened in 1891, with a concert conducted in part by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In the 1960s, the New York Philharmonic moved from Carnegie to the acoustically problematic new Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

3) Metropolitan Opera House, New York City. The "New Met" is the second home of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company; it opened in Lincoln Center in 1966.

4) The Concert Hall at Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C. (Hmmm.)

Schermerhorn Center
That shape is so familiar....
5) Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee. Opened in 2006, this new concert hall is designed in that familiar acoustics-boosting box shape.

6) Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis, Missouri. This 1925 building seats 2,689, and is home to the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

7) Benaroya Hall, Seattle. The Seattle Symphony's new home was inaugurated in 1998, and spans an entire city block in down-town Seattle, Washington.

8) Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon

9) Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Since a $10 million renovation in 1992, the Davies Symphony Hall has had superior acoustics to go along with its lovely dcor.

10) Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Saddled with a somewhat "Mickey Mouse" name, threatened with incompletion due to lack of funds, sued by neighbors whose condos were being cooked by sunlight reflecting from the metal shell, and mocked on a 2005 episode of "The Simpsons," the Walt Disney Concert Hall has seen its share of troubles since construction began in 1992. The Frank Gehry-designed hall finally opened in 2003, however, to near-universal praise for its acoustics. The beleaguered building seats 2,265 people, and houses both the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The focal-point of the stage is an unusual organ, also designed by Gehry. Resembling a mangrove tree with many roots, the organ has been described somewhat unflatteringly as a "log-jam." It consists of 6,125 pipes, including the largest which is 32 feet long!

And what of the world's "great" halls, regardless of location?  Robert James offers this list of the 14 best (why 14?).  He leaves plenty of room for argument.

Carnegie:  The world’s greatest and most renowned artists come to perform here, and as such it represents a pinnacle of achievement.

The "golden hall" of the Musikverein
Musikverein, Vienna (1744 seats): (Acoustically speaking) Back in 1870 architects didn’t have a whole lot to go on. They guessed, with the result that concert halls were designed and constructed based on not much more than intuition. Luckily, (Danish architect Theophil) Hansen’s sense of acoustics was more of a hit than most, which is why the Great Hall, as it’s known today, is recognized as one of the greatest concert halls ever built.

Walt Disney Hall (this one keeps showing up!)

Royal Albert Hall, London (nearly 6,000 seats):  Really?  The Kensington Gardens venue is perhaps best known for the Proms, the world’s biggest classical music concerts featuring the best artists in the world performing some of the most amazing music in the world for some of the most reasonable, some might even say cheapest, prices in the world.  Cheap and big make for greatness?

Madison Square Garden, New York.  Seriously?  They should have left the old Pennsylvania Station, an architectural wonder in itself instead of stacking an area on top of the underground railway lines.

Concertgebouw.  That darned rectangle keeps showing up!
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam:  A reverberation time of 2.2 seconds with audience intact make the Concertgebouw – literal translation: “concert building” – one of the world’s great concert halls. Without going into any detail here, because it’s a dull subject – 2.2 seconds is a very good number if you’re a concert hall.

Symphony Hall, Boston:  Built for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1900, Boston’s Symphony Hall was designated a US National Historic Landmark in 1999. Acoustically, it is considered the finest in the US, and among the top handful of concert halls in the world.

The Helix, Dublin (never heard of it):  Everything from opera to rock concerts to ice shows. Sinead O’Connor has played here, along with Van Morrison and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, although none of them, so far as we know, at the same time. Roddy Doyle’s “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” was also performed at the Helix, and the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra and The St. Petersburg Ballet have also performed at the venue. In 2003 it was awarded the Opus Building of the Year Award.

Vienna State Opera:  The Vienna State Opera is excellent bang for your buck in that it is both an opera house and an opera company. More than that, the members of the Vienna Philharmonic are recruited from its orchestra. This is definitely something to tweet home about, as The Vienna Philharmonic is widely recognized as the top of the orchestral world, possibly the tippy top depending who you’re talking to.

Radio City Music Hall, New York.  It is home to the mightiest of Wurlitzer's, with, not one, but two consoles.

Berlin Philharmonie
Berlin Philharmonie:  The home of the Berlin Philharmonic is acclaimed both for its acoustics and architecture. It was completed in 1963, and has two venues, the main hall which seats 2,440, and a chamber music hall seating 1,180 that was added later.

National Center for the Performing Arts, Beijing:  It’s a modernist look caught up in the triangle of Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of The People, and the Forbidden City. The youthful appearance mixed in with places and architecture of such historical significance caused some controversy at the time. The building is a glass dome with titanium accents, the sort of look your hairdresser might go for after a bad trip. It looks like a beached whale, or as others have said like an egg floating on water, which if that’s the case better keep an eye open for whatever laid it.

Berlin Konzerthaus:  (Inaugurated in 1821) The theater was damaged during the Second World War, and only reopened in 1984, which is when it became a concert hall. Today it is considered one of the world’s great concert halls, on an acoustic par with Boston’s Symphony Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Sydney Opera House:  The House is designed with seven performance venues of varying sizes, the largest being the Concert Hall, which holds about 2,500 people. According to John Malkovich, the acoustics at The House make it impossible to stage anything except a circus.  (So that makes it great?)

What makes bigger better? Size does matter....(Part 1)

....but not in the way everyone thinks.  In my recent examination of possible alternate concert venues for the beleaguered Atlanta Symphony, I was prompted to look further into concert hall and opera houses worldwide.  Our American predilection for building bigger monuments to cultural icons as well as bastions of athletic combat does not necessarily achieve better results.  Case in point:  the University of Michigan football team, among the winningest in all of sport, "performs" in a gargantuan stadium--"the Big House" (largest in the U.S.)--capable of seating over 109,000 people.  And yet, at this moment, the Michigan program is in a sort of free-fall, having recently been thrashed 31-0 by Notre Dame.  This seems a perfect case study for "the bigger they are, the harder they fall."

Jessica Duchen of The Independent wrote of a 2010 experience at Royal Albert Hall, the gargantuan home of the BBC proms, In the corridor outside door H, I was on the floor and a helpful usher was fetching the Royal Albert Hall medic. In the auditorium, the Prom from which I had extracted myself, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von N├╝rnberg, was in full swing. I feared the emphasis might yet fall on the word "die".  Six thousand people in a Victorian bullring on a hot night: the Tube couldn't compete. No wonder I conked out, and I had only made it through the first hour of six. A colleague had spotted another fainter being hauled out of the performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony the night before.

Royal Albert Hall, interior
Why can't we have venues in which we can see natural light; hear music, thanks to good acoustics; enjoy decent sight-lines; feel close to the performers even when we are far away; go to the loo without queuing for the whole interval; and, crucially, breathe? Why can't we have a little more room for our seats and somewhere to balance a glass of water – indeed, permission to take one inside? Why are glasses of liquid de rigeur for rock, pop and world-music gigs, yet when the same venues host a classical concert they come over all health-and-safetyish and ban drinks in the auditorium? In a hot hall, access to water is essential to health and safety. So is oxygen. Is it still impossible to make air-conditioning quiet enough to be compatible with music?

Obviously, all that would cost too much (except for the water) and we cannot expect any fine new halls to spring up any time soon. I will open something bubbly if the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Barbican are razed and the best architects and acousticians in the world are employed to start over again, but the bottle I'm putting aside could be worth a lot by the time that happens.

And this is in London, home of a significant number of concert organizations and venues, although-- apparently--none compare with one lost to the conflagration of World War 2.  Again, from Ms. Duchen,  We can, partly, blame the Luftwaffe for the fact that London does not have a world-class concert hall. The much adored Queen's Hall, an Art Nouveau-era construction next to Oxford Circus, was destroyed in 1941. It seated 3,000 in an interior that was painted the colour of "the belly of a London mouse" and its acoustics were described as "perfect". Nevertheless, after the war a seriously duff decision not to rebuild it was taken. Instead a new hall, for the Festival of Britain, took shape in the then rather nothingish area of the South Bank.

The late, great Queen's Hall, London
Here is a list of the largest concert halls in the U.S., all of which seat over 3,000 patrons.

*Elliott Hall of Music (Purdue University, IN) – 6,005 (1940)
Fox Theater (Detroit, MI) – 5,045 (1925)

Fox Theater, Detroit.  In one word:  WOW!
Performing Arts Center (Saratoga, NY) – 5,000 (1966)
Fox Theater (Atlanta, GA) – 4,678 (1929)
Masonic Temple Theater (Detroit, MI) – 4,404 (1922)
Auditorium Theater (Chicago, IL) – 4,300 (1889)
Metropolitan Opera House (New York City, NY) – 3,900 (1966)

A tech rehearsal at the Met, New York
DAR Concert Hall (Washington, DC) – 3,702 (1929)
*Auditorium (Indiana University) – 3,700 (1941)
Wang Theater (Boston, MA) – 3,700 (1925)
*Emens Auditorium (Ball State University, IN) – 3,581 (1964)
Filene Center (Vienna, VA) – 3,800 (1971)
Midland Theater (Kansas City, MO) – 3,573 (1927)
Civic Opera House (Chicago, IL) – 3,563 (1929)
*Hill Auditorium (University of Michigan) – 3,538 (1913)

Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Music Hall (Cincinnati, OH) – 3,516 (1878)
*Miller Auditorium (Western Michigan University) – 3,497 (1968)
Music Hall at Fair Park (Dallas, TX) – 3,420 (1925)
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (Los Angeles. CA) – 3,197 (1964)
War Memorial Opera House (San Francisco, CA) – 3,146 (1932)

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
*Eastman Theater (Rochester, NY) – 3,094 (1922)
Terrace Theater (Long Beach, CA) – 3,051 (1978)
Civic Auditorium (Pasadena, CA) – 3,029 (1931)
Civic Auditorium Concert Hall (San Jose, CA) – 3.001 (1936)
*Bass Concert Hall (University of Texas) – 3,000 (1981)
Birmingham Concert Hall (Birmingham, AL) – 3,000 (1976)
Lyric Theater (Kansas City, MO) – 3,000 (1926)

Those marked with an asterisk are halls on college/university campuses where it is not necessarily expedient to be able to sell out performances, for the venue is not required to be self-supporting.  It is interesting to note that the biggest of the bunch (by far), Purdue's Elliott Hall, exists on a campus with no actual music department!  Several are former homes to substantive arts organizations: Detroit's Masonic Hall was one of several venues occupied by the Detroit Symphony, before its eventual move back to Orchestra Hall.  Chicago's Auditorium (now a part of Roosevelt University) was originally constructed for the Civic Opera AND the Symphony.  The Lyric Theater in Kansas City, former home of that city's opera, has given way to the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Stay tuned for part two as we'll discuss the "art" (or often the best guess) of acoustics....

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Is there possibly a better way? The Woodruff vs. CAPA

The elephant in the room....
The Woodruff Arts Center
It appears to this writer that many of the problems inherent in the Atlanta Symphony's current woes are due to its "relationship" to the Woodruff Arts Center, which contains the High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theater, the Symphony Hall, and other smaller entities.  The "campus" of the Woodruff embodies a large footprint costing hundreds of millions of dollars (the most recent addition to the High cost $124 million).  The corporation, embodying several arts organizations, has been called "unprecedented in this country."  And yet, the orchestra seems saddled with a smaller (1,700 seat) facility with questionable acoustics.  Plans for a new $300 million hall have been shelved due to the organization's obvious financial difficulties.

* * * * * * * * * *

My work as Chair of the Arts and Lecture Series at Loras College in Dubuque took me to the Midwest Arts Conference on a yearly basis.  These are conclaves of artists and their management, each making a pitch to hundreds of arts presenters from this part of the country.  My travels took me to Cleveland (more exciting than I'd imagined), St. Paul, Kansas City, Austin, and, the biggest surprise, Columbus, Ohio.  Of course, I could opine about the fabulous cuisine I enjoyed: a great Spanish restaurant in Cleveland, French in St. Paul, Kansas City barbecue, and real Mexican in Austin, my focus is more on the thriving arts community that I discovered in Columbus, of all places.

Quite honestly I was not looking forward to that trip to Columbus.  To me, that city seemed like a larger version of our own Des Moines of 15 years or so ago.  Similar demographic, similar employment base (insurance), state government, etc.  I was in for an eye-opening experience.

Columbus's amazing Ohio Theater
From the "nosebleed seats," I heard Yo-Yo play Elgar
In 1969, community leaders formed the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts.  The initial goal of the organization was to save the historic Ohio Theater from the wrecking ball.  Designed in what was then the popular Spanish Baroque style, the Ohio was built by the Loew's theater chain, its 3,000 seat house opening in March 1928.   Closing in 1969, a development group had purchased the Ohio, with plans to rip it down and replace it with an office tower.  Thankfully, CAPA was formed and stepped in to save this palace, located directly across the street from the state capitol building.

The Palace; that ain't bad either...
CAPA has grown monumentally to become among the leading non-profit arts organizations in the country.  In the early 1990s, it assumed control of the Ohio's "companion" theater, the less opulent but still striking Palace, a mere two blocks away.  1998 saw the acquisition and restoration of the 1890s Southern Theater.  Since that time, CAPA has expanded beyond Columbus but still remained close to its roots; the organization was responsible for the nearly $14 million renovation of the Lincoln Theater, another of Columbus's former movie houses, this one an Egyptian Revival theater originally constructed to serve the needs of the city's growing African-American population.

The Southern.  Ohio's oldest extant theater.
CAPA should be a model for arts organizations around the country.  Instead of building new, it has saved the city's historic venues and preserved the cultural heritage of Columbus.  I am reminded of the small plaque in a park in Waterloo, IA noting the site of the "former Paramount Theater," this in a city devoid of any of these kinds of structures.  Cedar Rapids maintains its own Paramount, as well as the smaller Iowa Theater, while Davenport has its renovated Adler (to me, a snoozer) and the Capitol, now owned by a local community college with no apparent immediate plans for a glorious venue.

The Lincoln.  What city of similar size can boast
such a collection of stunning (and original) performance venues?
But there is another side to CAPA's role in the Columbus arts scene.  In 2010, the Columbus Symphony, long beleaguered by financial problems (resulting in the cancellation of part of the 2008 season), turned to CAPA for management assistance.  The office staff at the CSO had shrunk to the point where it could not oversee the tasks of marketing, development, ticket sales, etc.  So far, the arrangement seems to be working well (at least all is now quiet in Columbus).  Since that time, CAPA has assumed "back office" control or outright management of five other cultural organizations.  While some may be skeptical about this kind of outsourcing, CAPA has the staff and has slowly but surely developed the expertise to market not only its venues, but the organizations using them.  Seems to me to be a win-win.

Are you listening, Atlanta?

The enigmatic Mr. (oops..."Dr.") Romanstein

Dr. Romanstein, appropriately posed before an empty stage

Stanley Romanstein, President of the Atlanta Symphony, has been vilified from every corner of the country and beyond.  He has presided over unprecedented two lockouts of his musicians, shutting down what has become one of America's better ensembles and surely the pride of the southeast region.  But questions must be asked, "Who is this guy and how did he get into this position?

Romanstein signs everything "Ph.D", reminding everyone of his academic pedigree.  While a doctorate is a noble achievement (I hold a D.M.A. myself), does it really reflect expertise in the field of arts management?  In this case, no.  Romanstein's Ph.D, albeit from the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory, is in Renaissance musicology.  Nowhere on his ASO biography, which appears to date from 2012, the year of the ASO's first lockout, does it note any significant training in the tools necessary to run the largest musical organization in the southeast U.S.

A 2010 interview with Pierre Ruhe of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, paints a completely different view of Romanstein than the man he has apparently turned into.

On Fridays with his wife and three children, he gives as an example, the family bakes two loaves of bread, one to eat, the other to give away.

“It’s about being mindful. There’s a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam, or repairing the world,” Romanstein said recently during a freewheeling conversation in a Midtown coffee shop. “We have an obligation to try and fix the broken pieces. That’s what social justice is about. That’s what strong leadership is about. I have a fundamental interest in bringing people together, not building walls.”

This is not the Stanley Romanstein who shut down negotiations with ASO musicians in the final days preceding the expiration of the current CBA, which was adopted nearly at gunpoint two years ago.

Speaking of the accumulated debt that he inherited upon accepting the position, Romanstein noted,

“Eight million is not an insurmountable deficit,” he says, acknowledging that he’s stepping into an agenda set over recent months. With input from the rest of the ASO family -- musicians, staffers, board members, the arts center leaders -- Romanstein is helping rethink the 10-year strategic plan.

“The traditional model for American orchestras has been broken for 20 years,” says arts center president Joe Bankoff, who chaired the search committee that hired Romanstein. “Stanley understands that his top job is to bring financial stability....
It will take three years to get “our house in order, in finances, ticket sales, balance sheet. Nobody gets excited about addressing the deficit,” he says.

Romanstein has had four years to get the "house in order." including two years in which salaries were seriously curtailed.  Yet, the deficits continue and Romanstein and the ASO Board insists on balancing budgets on the backs of the musicians, instead of hitting the streets and drumming up financial support.  The Chicago Symphony recently announced another $2 million gift to go with the $32 million given earlier in the year.  Atlanta is not a poor community; somebody is just not doing their job.

My take is that here is a leader who is just plain out of his element.  Previously he served as CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center, an organization with a budget of a mere $4.2 million--peanuts compared to the budget of a major arts organization. The interview duly notes that he has never led a performing arts organization. So more questions must remain. How did this guy--lacking any experience in large non-profits and performing arts organizations--get the job? It reminds me of a performing organization I once worked for. Upon hiring a new operations manager, the executive director (herself an accountant), described the individual's qualifications in this way, "Well, she did have an orchestration class." (I wish I was kidding.)

Romanstein's closing statement in that 2010 interview is now tinted with more than a bit of irony, I get a sense of pent-up energy to go forward.  As an organization, the ASO has had so much momentum, everybody is ready to keep going.”

If only.....

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Et tu, Woodruff?

So....the troubles in Atlanta are making headlines across the country and the globe.  Since the announcement of the lockout earlier this month, management has become even more entrenched, seemingly refusing to resume negotiations with the musicians of the orchestra.  Norman Lebrecht notes that the Board of Directors has even called off its regular meeting this month.  There is no progress and one would be hard pressed to expect any very soon.

This must call to mind what seems to be a rather odd organizational model in Atlanta.  The symphony, along with the Alliance Theater and the High Museum of Art, is part of an umbrella organization, the Woodruff Arts Center.  On its very slick website, the Woodruff claims that each year, these centers of artistic excellence play host to over 1.2 million patrons at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Midtown Atlanta location, one of the only arts centers in the U.S. to host both visual and performing arts on a single campus.  Given the state of the symphony, one is left to wonder, is this a good thing?

Atlanta Symphony Hall, roughly 1,700 seats
To me, given the alternatives, kind of dull.....
The website also reminds readers of the terrible tragedy--a 1962 plane crash that virtually wiped out the city's arts leaders--that eventually led to the creation of the Woodruff, at its inception a bold vision of a synergistic relationship among arts organizations.  BUT, has this caused more problems than it has solved.  As a part of the Woodruff, how much autonomy does the symphony truly have?  The Center announced in June a record-breaking annual campaign that raised over $9 million.  That article goes on to note that the annual campaign is an important part of the more than $30 million raised annually by the Woodruff Arts Center and its arts and education partners.  Thus, one is left to demand, "Show me the money!"

The musicians made huge (to the tune of 14%) wage concessions during the 2012 lockout and, as earlier noted, Woodruff management and ASO CEO Stanley Romanstein, Ph.D (he notes that on nearly every written communication--more on that in the future) insist that there's is an unsustainable model.  The problem is that, in the last two years, nothing has been done to alter the model or remedy the fund raising defects that have resulted in 12 straight years of deficits and increased clearing out of the orchestra's endowment.  And the latest $2 million deficit is on top of that 14% salary reduction, which surely must have saved the organization millions of dollars.

It's obvious that the model is broken and the symphony (or at least its musicians) must consider severing the relationship with the Woodruff, which is trying to balance the competing demands of all of its constituent parts.  Is this conceivable, given the fact that the Arts Center contains the orchestra's performance center?  One must remember that the city is home to significant universities (Emory and Kennesaw State) as well as a wealth of other vibrant arts organizations and venues, the Fox Theater (at over 4,000 seats may be too large) among them.  During the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, those musicians performed at venues on the University of Minnesota campus and other halls that could accommodate their needs.  The Woodruff can ill afford for its hall to sit empty, but in these times, bold moves are in order.  Management won't talk so labor must find a way to carry on and keep their story and their plight in the headlines.

Atlanta's "fabulous Fox"
Other venues:

The Tabernacle, home to many a rock concert--why not?

Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center
Home of Atlanta Opera and Atlanta Ballet

Atlanta Civic Center
Cavernous (again over 4,000) but city-owned

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Say it isn't so! Deja vu in Atlanta and the "unsustainable model"

After what seemed like an August full of surgeries (left cataract--planned; right knee reconstruction--unplanned), I'm finally more or less moving toward normality.  Some medications have been arguing with each other; I guess some of those warnings on tv advertisements are true.  I've still managed to keep up with some of the unfortunate happenings in the world around us.

The orchestra world was in turmoil just two years ago, as recorded here.  Since that time, there is some sense of normalcy in the Twin Cities as Michael Henson is out and Osmo Vanska is back on the podium where he belongs.  The long and drawn out drama at the Metropolitan Opera ended without losing any part of the current season although one has to wonder how much animus remains for Peter Gelb.  James Levine will be back in a larger role (no pun intended) but Fabio Luisi, citing many commitments elsewhere, is out as Principal Conductor.  This guy is hot right now and it's unfortunate that the Met is losing him, especially given Levine's recent health history.  Still, it's the Met and they can probably get a decent leader at a moment's notice, as long as it's not Christoph Eschenbach.

Just two years ago the Atlanta Symphony was embroiled in an albeit brief 2012 lockout, after which the players accepted large salary (more than 14%, according to the NY Times) cuts and a resultant decline in its permanent complement.  All of the signs from the management indicated that the ensemble couldn't maintain its "current business model."  That has to be a management favorite because its been trotted out again and, since the end of August, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is once again on a forced hiatus.  A small sample of management's basic argument is based upon deficits that have accumulated over a number of years (many of which were overseen my Allison Vulgamore, who left her post in Atlanta only to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra into Chapter 11).

For the last 12 years, the ASO has operated each year with significant operating deficits, with costs outstripping revenues. That is an unsustainable trend.

The deficits are created in large part by adhering to a traditional operating model, one that hasn’t changed through decades despite dramatic shifts in consumer interests, the economy and competition for the entertainment dollar. The inability to change models has led to economic challenges at many orchestras around the country.

Much more of the management response to the lockout is found on the ASO's website.

If this is an "unsustainable trend" now, it certainly was two years ago and the fact that the parent organization is coming back to the players to clean its own house is unforgivable.  Naturally, these actions continue to resonate throughout the cultural community, just as they did during the 16-month (yes, it was that long) battle in Minnesota.  The players have demonstrated their willingness to "play and talk" (under the old collective bargaining agreement) but Stanley Romanstein, CEO, has chosen the "nuclear" (maybe we should now call it the "Henson") option.

September 17, 2014

I am pleased to report that the musicians of the NY Philharmonic have voted to send $10,000 to our beleaguered colleagues in Atlanta. We will continue to watch the situation closely, and send additional money as necessary. We will also be sending a strongly worded letter to the management and board of the ASO, voicing our outrage at the situation.

We wish all of our colleagues in Atlanta great strength.

In solidarity,
Ken Mirkin

Dear Atlanta Symphony Musicians, The Musicians of the Utah Symphony stand in unwavering solidarity with our friends and colleagues in the Atlanta Symphony as they fight courageously to preserve the legacy of their great orchestra. We are sending an initial donation of $5,000 to support their efforts and encourage all lovers of great music and art to visit the Atlanta Symphony Musicians' website at to join us in supporting this vital cause. As Atlanta Symphony Maestros Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles so eloquently stated in a letter to the ASO board, "Sustainability must also be applied to a quality of the orchestra and the notion of excellence, not only to finances. There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed." WAC's stated desire for maintaining artistic excellence while at the same time reducing the orchestra's size and compensation are utterly incompatible. There are fundamental artistic requirements necessitating a major orchestra to have a full compliment of players. One cannot present an exceptional concert with a third of the players missing or replaced, any more than one can feature Lang Lang on a baby grand with a third of the keys sticking. We urge WAC, The ASO Management, and the ASO board to join their musicians in seeking a reasonable contract that preserves and continues the exceptional musical legacy of the Atlanta Symphony. We remind those parties that the Atlanta Symphony Musicians are willing to go back to work immediately under the terms of their concessionary contract of two years ago while negotiations continue, preventing further damage to the reputation of this great orchestra. Once again, in the words of Runnicles and Spano: "Two years ago, our musicians accepted huge concessions with an expectation that, in so doing, both board and management would be able to steer the organization out of financial distress. We ask the board and management to acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made, and to examine other ways and areas to establish sustainability." In Solidarity, The Musicians of the Utah Symphony

AND, on top of locking out the players, the ASO management has suspended auditions for the organization's Youth Orchestra, citing a "mandate" from the local musician's union not to participate in any of that organization's activities.  It's not true, but for the whole story, read here.

Music Director Robert Spano
Unlike many other music directors of embroiled orchestras (Vanska excepted), Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles, leaders of the ASO, weighed in on the events in an impassioned letter.  For more, check out this article along with the text of the entire letter.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and, to understand the entirety of this mess, one has to comprehend the truly odd management structure of the ASO.  This will be investigated in future installments.  Stay tuned.

Monday, September 8, 2014


Audiences for "classical music" performances are aging and shrinking, at least in this country.  Many people blame the plight of contemporary music education:  what's the first thing to get axed in school curricula so language and math heavy?  Some people blame the short attention spans of modern youth.  How do we expect listeners used to 2:30 songs to sit through even a movement of a Mahler Symphony, much less the whole thing?  While we certainly cannot blame the music itself (except those ensembles completely ignoring anything written after 1900), perhaps it is in the presentation of that music that is scaring off a new audience.  Or perhaps it's the old model of performance itself.

A concert at Buckingham Palace, 1851
Yes, music education is suffering all over the country.  But even before NCLB (back when I was their age), one couldn't say much for the quality of that education either.  In middle school I just plain loved playing in the band.  Although the atmosphere was highly disciplined, it was fun.  Here I was, seated in a room with about 75 students, most of whom were my friends, playing Bach.  Yep, Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B-flat (transcription of the work in C-major).  It was the coolest thing; no one had to tell us; we just kind of knew it.  As for general music.....SNOOZE!  Blue-haired lady played "drop the needle" for hours on end, just telling us that Beethoven was something special.  To me, his music made for a good nap.  Now, maybe tell me why he was something special (besides going deaf) and I might have perked up a little.....then again, maybe not.

Who would be comfortable wearing jeans
and a t-shirt to this show?
What kind of presentation are we offering to our audiences.  In 2008, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette music critic Andrew Druckenbrod tried a shot at debunking some of the myths of classical concert attendance.  He included:

Myth: You must dress up.  While that's not necessarily so, come to Five Flags Theater in Dubuque for an evening performance and wait for the picketers from PETA.  I swear that I've never seen so many furs in one place.  And what about the players?  Gentlemen's attire hasn't really changed in 200 years.  We're still expected to dress like (quoting cellist Lynn Harrell) Captain von Trapp's butler.  
Myth: You must understand music to enjoy a concert.  This one I probably have to agree with, although it needs to be accepted with a grain of salt.  Elliot Carter is an acquired taste and I'm not sure his music is particularly kind on my palette.  That said, does "understanding" the intricacies of sonata form allow for greater enjoyment of a Beethoven symphony?  Frankly, it's ok to just bask in the richness of the sounds.  Interestingly enough, Rite of Spring probably would "do more" for a younger audience than Ode to Joy.  Of course, there are usually copious program notes offered to assist the listener, but they're often pedantic, referring again to those complex forms and the varied elements in the music itself.  AND, the lights are dimmed so as to make reading them during performance impossible.  At my own summer concerts there are no notes; I try to offer brief but poignant commentary on what we're about to perform and let the audience take it from there.
Myth: There are secret rules of conduct. Well??????? One will still get nasty looks if you clap between movements (a twentieth-century phenomenon, ya know...) Back in the "old days," movements of symphonies were primarily spaced out among other works on the program. And if the audience heard something it liked? Applause in the middle of the piece! (Egads!) And something they hated? One can still have that experience at Milan's famed Teatro La Scala. Those Italians are not afraid to hoot, holler (and "boo") something that displeases them.  And, of course, there are the stories of the riots caused at the infamous premiere of Rite.  Frankly, I long for those days.

Myth: Classical music is old and irrelevant. Yeah, a lot of it would be considered "old," although it's hard to hear much before Mozart (b. 1756) on our classical concerts. An occasional Bach, but most of that has been taken over by the "historically informed performance" crowd, as if they actually know and want to recreate the sounds of the earlier times. From what I know of rehearsal practices (or the lack thereof), the last thing I'd want to do is hear a first performance in the era before the professional orchestras (roughly pre-1850). I am sure that many of these, by modern standards, were horrible.  As for relevance, that is surely in the ear of the listener.  Travel to Prague and you'll find that Mozart's Don Giovanni, the piece he wrote for them(!), remains highly relevant, as much as their home-grown composers.  I really have to think that emotions and beauty (in sight or in sound) never really go out of style.

I'd pay good money to hear this!  (But note: "Admission free")
So, how do we get our audiences back?  (As if we ever lost them.)  Parents with young children cannot attend concerts held on weekend evenings without laying out cash for a babysitter.  Is child care a possibility for our concert halls?  Can we work to recreate the exciting events that made concerts during the nineteenth century so special?  Pops programing is not going to increase attendance at "real" concerts, but could smaller, chamber-like performances actually be performed in venues appropriate to the music?  How about a bar that offers a much difference venue for classical music (La Poisson Rouge anyone)?  Or, take a cue from the flash mobs and go to where the people are, rather than trying to get them to come to you.  There won't be any cash in it, BUT it certainly is an acknowledgement that a lot of this stuff we call classical music (and I mean much more than Ode to Joy) can reach the masses.....