Leaked email: Maestros attack Atlanta’s ‘unhealthy’ situation

Leaked email: Maestros attack Atlanta’s ‘unhealthy’ situation


norman lebrecht

September 03, 2014

In a move unprecedented in US orchestras, the music director and principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have pitched into the attempt by ASO management to force through further job cuts, under threat of an imminent lockout. Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles leave no doubt as to where their commitment lies. Read their remarkable letter below.

UPDATE: ASO management response here.


robert spanorunnicles

To: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra September 2, 2014
— The Board of Directors
— The Management
— The Musicians
Although it is neither our place nor our intent to involve ourselves directly in the collective bargaining process between musicians and management, we feel compelled to write this letter. Our doing so bears inherent risks as it may be construed as our taking sides in what again has proved to be a contentious process. We both feel bound by a sense of responsibility and deep commitment to represent and remind everyone what the ASO is all about: its high musical standards and aspirations. Indeed we are charged by contract to create and maintain it.

In the heat of the current negotiation we fear these standards might easily be forgotten or compromised. Our emotional commitment to the ASO and its potential is profound. This prompts us to speak out lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands as temporary stewards. This is all the more poignant in that next season we celebrate the legacy of Robert Shaw. The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss.

This year’s contract negotiation repeats an unhealthy pattern of pitting musician and management positions as incompatible alternatives. The situation is not unique to Atlanta. There are positive examples to emulate but above all we must avoid the residue of discord and acrimony. The concept that stopping the music — whether characterized as lockout or strike — as a reasonable alternative is  unfathomable, deeply divisive, and would be a tragic mistake.

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.

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. We must re-dedicate ourselves to the ASO’s founding principles of excellence and to the support of a full, robust, and world-class symphony orchestra. We need a long-term agreement. The very nature of how the ASO interacts with its community is
far better served without frequent interruptionof collective bargaining. Creative innovation itself requires time. Conception, investment, and experimentation take time to implement, and cannot be assessed instantly.

As we reflect on our long and deep relationship with this remarkable orchestra, it is our fervent hope that our words would be used only as a reminder of the common purpose we share: the purpose to which the board has generously and tirelessly devoted considerable energy and personal resource – and that same purpose to which the musicians dedicate their lives and livelihoods.
We are both deeply committed and deeply concerned.
Music Director       Principal Guest Conductor


  • harold braun says:

    Bravi Maestri!!!

  • Brian says:


    I will say, Runnicles and Spano are walking a fine line in their statement. Most of it is a form of “can’t we all just get along?” But there does seem to be a growing trend of conductors entering the fray in these situations, a la Osmo Vanska and Minnesota.

  • william osborne says:

    It is grotesque that a city as large and wealthy as Atlanta should be having these problems with its orchestra . Atlanta’s economy ranks 15th among world cities, but it ranks 355th in the world for opera performances per year. Until America faces up to its neglect of the arts and its dysfunctional funding system no number of letters from “Maestri” will solve its problems.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Nothing, nothing whatsoever, is stopping Atlanta from funding arts institutions at whatever level the city and the people there want. Nearly all the elected officials are Democrats, so it’s not like Republicans, neocons, the Tea Party, the Koch brothers or any other boogymen cooked up in the fevered imagination of the Left are standing in the way.

      • Galen Johnson says:

        In the USA, elected officials–of any party–have little or nothing to do with funding arts organizations. Providing the money for sports stadiums that cost hundreds of millions of dollars of tax money? That’s different.

        • william osborne says:

          Last year’s military budget was 640 billion. That’s 1.7 billion per day. 72 million per hour. And 1.2 million per minute. The military thus spends a sum equal to the Atlanta Symphony’s $50 million yearly budget in 42 minutes.

          If the military needed the money that would be one thing, but 80% of it is pork for the military-industrial complex. In our one-party Republocrat nation nothing is going to change.

      • celloman says:

        But you can assume that most of the board members of the ASO ARE very conservative Republicans. There is the problem. Boards of Directors across the nation are demanding that musicians are relegated to the bottom of the economic ladder. This is our future. This is America. We ARE becoming a banana republic.

        • Galen Johnson says:

          My personal experience with boards in that part of the USA, decades ago now, was mixed. Certainly, there were enthusiastic, open and thoughtful board members, but there’s a slim majority of those who hate and despise unions–as their first principle in governance. All unions. One board member, who was the vp if I recall correctly, actually told me that, “Salaried employees are like kleenex. Use ’em, then throw ’em away.”

    • Opera Violinist says:

      The article I read was about symphony orchestras, not opera performances.

      • william osborne says:

        Both are good measures of the health and status of classical music in societies. (Also, opera companies use large orchestras.)

  • Doug says:

    If these two would forgo their massive salaries for one year, I’m certain that would translate into a 20% increase for the musicians for the next five.

    • Anonymous says:

      A look at Adaptistration tells us that Robert Spano made $559,312 in 2011/12. Base Salary for an Atlanta Symphony musician is $73,876. Even if Donald Runnicles made the same amount as Robert Spano(he is surely paid much less) this would mean that if you raised the pay of each musician by 20% to $88,651(an increase of $14,775 a year for each musician) Spano and Runnicles’ combined salary of 1,118,624(again, an absurdly high assumption, since Runnicles is definitely paid less than Spano) would cover 75 of the musicians’ hypothetical RAISES(not even their SALARIES!) for one year. This scenario is assuming Spano and Runnicles did their extremely difficult and demanding job without any compensation whatsoever, which is obviously unfair.
      This math took me 5 minutes of research and calculating to do. Why do people insist on lying on the internet just to push their own agenda? It isn’t helping anything.

  • Kendric says:

    It should be noted that Mr. Spano already gives a substantial portion of his salary back to the ASO fund drive every year, not just this one. And he gave his personal financial support to keep the ASO from having to cancel its trip to Carnegie Hall last spring. So don’t assume. These men are dedicated to the Orchestra’s highest level of performance. They need to be praised, not subjected to the juvenile ramblings of the uninformed.

  • Harold Kupper says:

    Perhaps a bit of context for those decrying the “massive” salaries of Spano and Runnicles. Please refer to the compensation for Health Insurance CEOs Joseph Swedish CEO Of WellPoint: 17 million ($49,853 per day) Mark Bertolini CEO of AETNA: 30.7 Million ($90,029 per day) Bruce Broussady CEO of Humana: 8.8 million ($25,807 per day).

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Employing the above exercise, if these CEO’s salaries were to be divided among their employees, everyone would have a raise of $169 to $617 a year, or less than $2 a day. You would also now need someone to run the company.

      “Anything I don’t understand must be simple.” – Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss.

      • Harold Kupper says:

        The point was what I consider to be the misuse of the adjective ‘massive’ when describing the ASO music leadership salaries. The ratio of CEO pay to average worker at AETNA is nearly 75 to 1 while Spano’s is around 7 to 1 at the ASO.

  • Anonymous says:

    Maybe they should just cut the superfluous management. Do they really need that many people to run an orchestra?

  • eric smith says:

    Let’s hold open auditions for musicians who want to play for the symphony at current wages and benefits (or less), and see how much good talent we can find. And then let’s hear musicians justify why they should be paid more than that.

    • Harold Kupper says:

      Yes Eric, by all means let’s all race to the bottom and destroy that which has been built up over many decades, throw out the veteran players, throw out tenure and see how that works. You sound like a frustrated musician wannabe who couldn’t make the cut.

    • Laura C. says:

      Sorry, Eric Smith – I just couldn’t let this remark pass by without commenting. It’s the same tired old argument of “if you don’t like it, you can be replaced:” another intellectually dishonest argument against paying top-class musicians what they deserve and have earned. I hope I’m not being too personal, but I really find your comment offensive!!

      Sir, if you had any idea what you were talking about, you would not be spouting this supposed market-based load of crud. (I put in another word here for the faint of heart.) If you had read ANYTHING about this orchestra, you would know that their most recent auditions to fill some posts left vacant by retirement and people quitting have actually *not been filled* because they could not find people of the caliber needed to keep a top-rank orchestra!!!

      An orchestra is not making widgets: not just any old player will “do” in order for an orchestra to play at a high level. It is an organization which acts very much like an organism – – it needs all its components to be high-quality and they all need to work together well in order for the whole thing to perform at optimal quality. Someone could be an excellent player and STILL not be right for the Atlanta Symphony because of the style of their playing, how they work within a section, and especially, their personality!

      Orchestras are constructed, person by person, over years and years, and each orchestra (at least SHOULD) have its own sound as a result. You can’t just throw them all out and expect to throw another group of disparate people together who will play beautifully together. It’s a team effort, and that’s what’s so special about a symphony orchestra.

      We have what we call “pick-up orchestras” that are formed by lots of free-lancers and do one-off concerts in different venues, and it may be enough for the likes of Andrea Boccelli and his ilk, or your local mall’s Christmas pageant, but if you are looking for world-class music making with an actual SOUND, history and through-line of repertoire, a pick-up orchestra is not enough. It’s the difference between Farmer’s League and the Baseball Hall of Fame: both have their place, but they are not in the same league.

      If you knew ANYTHING about the sacrifice, practice, talent, and financial investment that goes into becoming and staying a top-class classical musician, you might not be spouting this nonsense. You should know that getting to the level that it takes to be in a top-level orchestra takes years and years of practice, on top of many years of study with top-knotch teachers. At quite a cost, I might add. Not only have these musicians sunk tons of money into their training (and instruments!), one could equal the hours they have spent fine-tuning their craft to the hours it took a doctor or a lawyer to study and do his/her training. You can not equate the hoards of students just coming out of conservatory or any ol’ wannabe hack with a top-knotch player in a top-knotch orchestra. Sure, a Farmer’s League batter would be glad to play on the Boston Red Socks for a fraction of any player’s salary, but would you be getting a David Ortiz or a Mike Napoli??

      I’m sick of being told that classical musicians shouldn’t be paid well for elite jobs in the classical field. It is a bias that needs to be fought with facts, not uneducated populist prejudice!

      So quit your arm chair arts administration and read up on something before spewing utter b.s. on a music blog, please.

      • Lisa Hyde says:


        • Evenviolasdeserverespect says:

          Actually, the hours spent training are far more than a MD or JD. I like the baseball analogy: lots of people play, but few make it to the big leagues. There is an enormous investment of time and money in spite of the odds of making it to “the show” being slim. Injury, a bad coach, a disastrous play at the wrong moment, lack of financial support can all derail you. Two big differences are length of career and current societal value. Sports weren’t always massively popular and well funded. Symphonies were not always middle class jobs. Perhaps PDQ Bach was on the right track to have announcers call Beethoven 5 like a baseball game.

          A mediocre banker has a nice house/car etc. A mediocre classical musician is a waiter.

  • Calatravesty says:

    I used to work closely ASO. When I check up on my former colleagues, they are filtered off to other various non-profits, in their siloed professional capacities (marketing, development). None of them stuck with classical music.

    How on earth can you truly be dedicated to an artistic field when the next artistic field is just a job interview away? The musicians don’t go off to work for art museums or cancer research societies.

    It was a positively corrosive culture, there.

    • Galen Johnson says:

      Nationwide, in job listings for similar positions, a commitment to classical music is hardly mentioned. It’s “helpful.”

  • eric smith says:

    Artists often amusingly believe that because they’ve put so much time and money into their craft that they deserve to be paid a certain amount that reflects that. That’s not how our system works. If that were the case, art history majors and philosophy grads could get paid as much as software engineers. No — you get paid what others perceive your value is worth — and in this environment of declining willingness to pay for the arts, musicians (esp. classical) are not in a position of strength.

    The question is not, how much do these particular musicians “deserve” to get paid. There are 15 different wrong answers to that depending on who you ask. The question is what can their skills command in the supply/demand of classical musicians, and does Atlanta need to have an orchestra (and more importantly — will Atlanta *pay* for an orchestra) that is “constructed, person by person, over years and years”. You might similarly ask why all wine shouldn’t deserve $600 a bottle because of the nuance and effort put into it, but someone will still only be willing to pay $12 for a typical bottle when they are in their right mind.

    The answer is, however you look at it, “musicians will not have it as good as before”. Let the musicians fight as much as they can, but in the end it will be a losing battle against a tide of economic forces.

    But you’ll have to forgive me, apparently I have no idea what I’m talking about.

    • william osborne says:

      There are few fields where labor can’t be pushed down to lower and lower pay. That’s why we have unions.

  • Laura C. says:

    I am fighting back an ad hominem attack with less than ladylike words with all my might.

    I really must take umbrage at your smug and self-satisfied (and ignorant) reply. We are not talking about the magic and the all-knowing-goodness of market forces here.

    We are talking about boards, controlled by people who have a bias against unions at all costs and, deep down, think that musicians are not worth as much as other top professionals, ; these smug people are making decisions based on the kind of thinking you are proposing.

    Why have a top economist at the Federal Reserve when you have all these other economists coming out of universities every year? Heck, why pay them so damn much because they’ve had all that practice and are proven in their field? I repeat: if you want a top-level orchestra, you pay top-level prices.

    I think you have revealed yourself in your own comments. I’m sure you think that $12 bottle of wine is just as good as those $40 and $50 and $100 and $600 bottles of wine. That doesn’t make it so, just because you and a lot of other slobs believe it; it just means you don’t have the discernment to know the difference. Just because a lot of people think the same way does not make it so.

    The only salient point you have brought up is whether or not Atlanta wants, deserves or is willing to pay for a top-level orchestra. THIS is the real point. And I agree with you whole-heartedly here. (Thank goodness, some thread in common!!) However, if you want a Mascarello Barolo, you pay top dollar for it. Punto e basta. If you’re only willing to pay for Mondavi, that’s what you’re going to get. If you don’t know the difference from 3-buck-chuck, then it’s not my fault and you shouldn’t fault me for thinking you don’t know wines.

  • Eric Smith says:

    Hah. Very amusing discussion.

    The problem with wine is that if you’ve read all sorts of recent studies, people often let the price of the bottle influence what they believe it’s worth. So just to be perceived as a good wine, it has to be priced at $50 or more. All in the meantime, many experts cannot even tell the difference between a $12 bottle and a $90 one when their labels/price tags are removed. People who live in these worlds of inflated and distorted valuations often believe their “worth” is a lot greater than it really is in the market. I would not hesitate to say that musicians have just a bit of the same sense of disconnection between their many years of training, and believing that that equals people’s willingness to pay.

    Anyway, let’s not talk about theoretical analogies. As you said, is Atlanta willing to pay for this extraordinary talent, supposing that it even makes a perceptible difference.

    The American willingness (and demographic) that is prepared to pay top dollar for perceived top-tier quality musicians has been declining for decades. That crowd is, to put it kindly, rapidly “aging out”, and not many 20-somethings are willing to pay the ticket prices to support $150,000/yr musicians. Refusing to acknowledge that is simply putting blinders on to reality. And by the way, in the whole audience of a symphony, you would probably find <5 people who could even know who the name of the principal players are, much less care. So let's not overblow the importance of having celebrity first violinists, etc.

    If, as the other responder posted, a union is what's keeping wages from going lower, you really to ask, what good is the union other than propping up wages? If the public is really willing to pay for the amazing quality, how about we put it to a test and see, if you're being intellectually honest about it? The party that has evidence to show that top-tier musicians do / don't make a difference will win the question. Do you have such data? Otherwise, simply asserting that top quality is needed, and/or standing behind a union's ability to strike or hold a concert season hostage is just delaying and avoiding the real inevitable economic question that looms on the horizon.

    Anyway, this has been amusing. I probably don't have time to followup and come back to reply further, so I wish you all good luck.

    • william osborne says:

      The philosophy in most developed countries is that at least some of the best classical musicians (such as in about our top 15 orchestras) should be paid according to their talent, dedication, and hard work, and not solely by market demands. That’s the meaning of being non-profit. Decisions are made that are informed by the market, but not solely beholden to it. This is seen as an element of being a civilized society, especially in the Social Democracies of Europe.

      This ethos is also followed in the States, but to a lesser degree. Salaries have risen to inordinate levels here more out of a desire for status rather than a view humanistic values and culture. Musicians in the LA Phil thus make $150k per year while the average pay for musicians in regional orchestras is only $13k — less than 1/10th the amount. The wealthy service themselves luxuriously while the rest of the country is neglected.

      Atlanta’s salaries are not in this category. They are in the mid range and in-line with what highly recognized, middle class professionals are often paid. They are not excessive, and they have already taken a $14k cut per year.

      We should also note, that even if the salaries of top orchestras are reduced, the saved funds will not go to the support of regional culture. The wealthy will just get their fancy orchestra’s cheaper while still neglecting society as a whole.

      • Christine P. says:

        umm. this is a whole nother debate. If you’re going to suggest that the symphony is a social good that should be supported as part of regional or national culture improvement, you’re getting into the role of government in society. We might as well suggest that Atlanta City government form an orchestra and charge taxes for as a public benefit, and have that debate! I mean, if it’s so important to have this in Atlanta…

  • Terry says:

    Regardless of whether or not musicians deserve the salaries or whether or not having world class orchestras in every city is a sign of the good health of a culture, the question we should be asking is “Where shall board members go to find the money?” If no one will donate, then how can they pay salaries? Donors have to be convinced that orchestras are worthy non-profits, deserving of their funds – just like cancer research and feeding the poor (imagine answering that statement during an “ask meeting” with a potential donor). If orchestras can’t pay for themselves through ticket sales or other revenue streams, then both musicians and boards have to do a better job of convincing donors that the best place to put their charitable contributions is toward the arts. It’s pointless to argue that the arts are crucial to civilization (which I believe they are) with a potential donor who wants to find a cure for autism. This is the problem that nobody is willing to discuss. Both musicians and boards are responsible for convincing donors to give. Yes, musicians deserve to be paid wages that reflect a lifetime of sacrifice. But boards can’t just print money on their own. Both parties must participate in fundraising.

  • Terry says:

    Well, I hope you aren’t suggesting that the government completely underwrite the arts, because that just isn’t going to happen. I wish it would, but it won’t. The State of Georgia, Fulton County and the City of Atlanta all support the ASO. But government in the USA will never fund the arts the way the governments of Great Brittain and Germany do. It just isn’t going to happen and it is a complete and frustrating waste of time to complain about it. And, by the way, this does not mean that the USA is uncivilized. Of course it is civilized. The dichotomy of this argument is absolutely maddening. On one side there are those who feel that the government should fund the arts at whatever price artists feel they are worth and are embarrassed that the government doesn’t. On the other side are those who feel that artists are only worth whatever market price they can command without regard for the immeasurable contribution artists make to society. It is like watching children argue on the playground about who is better, boys or girls.

    The only way we are going to get past the donor/charity model is to have privately owned, for-profit arts institutions that are run as businesses. It will not compromise the integrity of the art form. Pharmaceutical companies make money, but they also save lives. Orchestras could make money – if they understood anything at all about marketing and sales – while also upholding high artistic standards. To think otherwise is not only cynical but shows a lack of confidence in the power of the art form to transform lives if only given the chance. Run these institutions like businesses and stop begging for someone else to pay for it. Then pay the performers and creators what professionals should be paid.

  • Sophie says:

    I agree that these top executives are making an obscene amount of money while the musicians suffer. Cut those excessive salaries, starting with Robert Spano, at $662,658 per year, the top paid person in the whole Woodruff organization!