I, like many in the city of Atlanta, have been following the recent events that have regrettably led to a lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians along with the suspension of their salaries and health benefits. This is a story that has troubled me both personally and professionally.
At first, one may wonder how the difficulties facing this orchestra affect me, a relatively unknown composer. After all, the ASO has never programmed my music. Why should I care? If the orchestra were to disappear tomorrow, would it impact my professional career in any material way? These are short-sighted and selfish questions. I am, of course, deeply affected by what is happening at the Woodruff Arts Center on three basic levels.
First, I am concerned on a personal level for the individual performers who make up the symphony. The story of the current situation has been covered quite well by Scott Freeman and Mark Gresham in a recent article over at ArtsATL.com. While I have read this piece as well as press releases from both the musicians and management, I do not pretend to know the intricacies of the labor dispute. What I do know is the membership of the ASO. I consider many of the musicians in the orchestra colleagues, having worked closely with them in various performances of my chamber music in the city over the years. More than that, many of the musicians are friends of mine. These are dedicated artists who have sacrificed much throughout their lives to make it into the chairs they occupy in the orchestra. Many of them have children, spouses or other significant persons who depend upon them. This lockout is already wreaking a heavy and terrible human toll.
Secondly, I have a large personal stake in the health of the ASO. Few composers go it alone. Unless writing solely for electronic instruments, we are dependent upon performers to breathe life into our scores. The ASO has always been a shining beacon of art and culture in the city of Atlanta and beyond. It has been a center of gravity drawing some of the finest performers in the world to the city and creating a vibrant artistic eco-system wherein composers like myself can thrive. Throughout my professional travels in the musical world, it has been made quite apparent that my peers also hold this orchestra in very high esteem. The fact that this lockout has become a leading story nationally speaks to the importance of the orchestra not only to the city of Atlanta but also to the entire nation. Every day that the lockout continues further jeopardizes the current season as well as the very future of the orchestra itself. Should the orchestra not quickly recover from this lockout, I fear irreparable harm will come to the entire Atlanta arts community. Many fine artists may choose to leave the city. The brightest and most talented musicians exiting conservatories and schools of music may think twice about even bothering to audition in Atlanta. It is irrelevant whether or not the symphony performs my music or not. It is even irrelevant if they play any contemporary music at all. All of us left standing will be the poorer in the wake of a potential talent drain. Moreover, the entire city of Atlanta will be diminished in the eyes of the country. The ramifications of this lockout are, indeed, far reaching and will linger for years.
Finally, I am troubled by this lockout because I believe it to be a bit unfair. Despite what little I know about the current labor dispute, it seems to me that the musicians themselves are not solely responsible for the budget deficits plaguing the orchestra. They are powerless to make the types of decisions that lead to budget shortfalls. After years of sacrifice, untold hours of practice, success through a highly competitive audition process and daily rehearsal/concert schedules, their job is to perform the music placed before them at the highest possible level. At this job, they consistently succeed beyond expectations.
Both sides have indicated that a solution may not be far off. I am confident that the administration loves this orchestra as much as anyone and wishes to preserve it. With all respect, I do not believe that this lockout is a useful tactic. It is my fervent hope that the lockout will be lifted as soon as possible and the musicians’ salaries and health benefits will be restored. I furthermore hope that both sides continue to actively work for a solution that everyone can live with. The arts in Atlanta depend upon it.