Thursday, January 31, 2013

Happy New Year! Come Join the Discussion!

Welcome to the ASOC Singers and Friends Site -- created by ASOC members -- in response to the events surrounding the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra players' lock-out and contract dispute

Anyone with a question, insight, an article to share, an idea to float, or a need for more information before forming an opinion on these and other relevant issues, is enthusiastically welcomed here.  The ASOC Singers and Friends Site is where you will find the latest information; more importantly, it's the place where you have the opportunity to engage in frank discussion of these issues with members of the ASOC and with ASO musicians.  It's also where to find links to the history of the ASO Chorus, founded over forty years ago by Robert Shaw.

We extend warm greetings to interested readers from all parts of the globe ... each month, thousands of people from every continent find the ASOC Singers and Friends Blog, and continue to add to our readership ... they order t-shirts, too (we are grateful for the world-wide support of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association ... and ship internationally!)

Our mission is to keep the discussion going, exchange information and formulate ideas with the goal of addressing the serious problems facing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  Ours is not just a regional crisis.  The same problems are playing out in orchestras around the world:  lack of solid financial footing and internal controls, shrinking audiences, shortsighted donor and patronage development, poor management, communication breakdown between management and musicians, missing 'feeder' institutions, limited local government subsidies, outdated venues, unproductive marketing programs... and the latest groan-inducing topic explored in a recent letter to the NY Times, the 'relevance' of classical music today.  Every person committed to the symphonic art form -- no matter where you live on the planet -- has a vested interest in learning more about each of these issues, and helping work to become part of the solution.   

The ASOC Singers and Friends Blog isn't a message board or a 'preach to the choir' community.  It is hoped that you, as an interested reader, will take time to respond to what your music colleagues are posting here.  Please feel free to comment, to ask challenging questions and express your own thoughts -- anonymously, if you wish.  If you would like to contribute an essay or article, please see the Housekeeping! section for how to obtain authoring privileges.  

The 2012 lock-out was a polarizing event, an often contentious subject, but the majority of people who visit this site are friends, colleagues, and supporters of the ASO musicians ... and lovers of classical music concerts. In order to fully communicate the issues which face our respective organizations -- the ASO and ASOC -- and to promote free access to relevant information, we have made this site generally available to anyone who finds us on Facebook, other sites, or Googles us up.         

To find out more detail on how everything works here, please visit the Housekeeping! page.

Should you have a general comment regarding what you would like to see on the blog, or if you have a concern you would like to share, please add it to the Feedback page ... or email Sally Kann at

Welcome!   Come join the discussion!  


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Future of Classical Music Recordings ...

... is largely in the hands of the man who attracted Taylor Swift, Queen and The Eagles to Universal Music Group.

Max Hole was made CEO of UMG's Classical Music Division ... which already included Decca Classics label and Deutsch Grammophon and, since 2012, EMI. UMG produces one in three of all recordings sold today.  

Who Mr. Hole is, briefly:

And here are highlights of his speech to the annual gathering of the Association of British Orchestras, courtesy of Slipped Disc:

Monday, January 21, 2013

'Racial Favoritism and the ASO': Ack! ... You Again.

Talk about asking for a hotfoot ... but here is John Bennett's December 2012 article in American Thinker about the 'diversity' issue surrounding the ASO holiday concerts which featured high school choruses.  I have to say, I was surprised to find an article supporting racial diversity in a right-wing publication, but I shouldn't have been; reporting on the arts affords an opportunity to bash what is generally considered 'elitist'. (It's worth mentioning that Mr. Wade is no longer with the ASO organization, although he figures in the story.)

Several media outlets tended to flog this bit of news along the same lines as Mr. Bennett; our local Atlanta ones had a 'two-fer':  pointing up the lack of diversity in ASO player personnel ... while, at the same time, showing high school parents from a predominantly white area -- within a predominantly African-American city -- up in arms about what used to be called 'reverse discrimination'. The media coverage succeeded in bringing out the worst in everybody, stirring up hostility and anger.  But the worst thing was, the skewed publicity and subsequent comments vilifying the ASO organization were directed almost solely at the musicians ... and came at a time when the orchestra, having suffered a lockout, material losses, and damage to its reputation, needed the public's support.

In his article, Bennett says that the choice of inviting other Atlanta high school chorus groups to perform with the ASO was a product of 'hypocrisy and racial double standards', because orchestra personnel is insufficiently diverse.  In other words, ASO Management, seeking to add 'racially diverse props' to its image, dis-invited the predominantly white high schools.  By doing so, Bennett says, 'the ASO wants to engineer the façade of diversity. They cannot and will not create that façade among their musicians.'  Obviously the writer has some high feeling about this subject, but he didn't do his homework ...  

Just to be clear ... the ASO's core mission dates from 1998:

We unite in our desire to serve and to expand our audience through innovative programming, broader venues and increased educational opportunities while balancing artistic growth with financial soundness. We share a heritage of passion for the music. We embrace our responsibility to be a vigorous part of the cultural fabric of our community and to strive to reach national and international audiences.  

ASO Management administers a nationally renowned symphony orchestra, a public institution in one of the country's most racially diverse cities.  Trying to make a cloak of 'racial diversity' out of whole cloth was looking to get busted. Seeming to lack any context beyond needing a 'chorus featuring more African-American kids', ASO Management's actions generated more suspicion in the Atlanta community and beyond.  It would have made better sense for management to explore and advance new cooperative programs with Atlanta educational, cultural and arts groups; there are always exciting, forward-looking developments in this community.  Unfortunately, ASO Management decided to co-opt an already successful in-house program in order to publicly 'fix' the perception of racial diversity (or lack thereof) within the organization.  At best, the elicited statements from ASO Management, as reported by Mr. Bennett, come across as spin ... at worst, they sound patronizing ... and, most damaging, they do nothing to address the depth of ASO's commitment to music education in this city.

Bennett acknowledges -- in his last paragraph -- a 'positive outcome'; the orchestra bypassed 'ASO management to hold a school fundraiser with the Walton and Lassiter high schools.'  ASO musicians disregarded their own embarrassment and dismay, the unkind remarks from public and press, as well as the political aims of their management, in order to do the right thing ... demonstrating to students at Walton and Lassiter how real and strong their connection is to young musicians. 

But ultimately, Bennett appears to have missed an important point about that 'connection'.  And he missed it because he and others seem to have bought into the easy assumption that the classical symphonic art form has little to offer this community unless it mirrors the racially diverse city within which it exists. This 'easy assumption' fails to take into account that the real connection between Atlanta and its orchestra has always been made not through corporate policies or marketing schemes, but through the tireless efforts of the musicians, who have been performing, coaching, teaching, mentoring, and holding master classes in Atlanta schools and ensembles for almost four decades.

In my opinion, the city of Atlanta has no finer example of passion, discipline and commitment ... unless you also count teachers all over the city, many of whom plan their yearly curricula around the ASO. What Mr. Bennett calls an 'absolute absurdity' -- the reallocation of 'musical tastes among (diverse) groups' -- I call the ASO's 'core mission statement', because the importance of great classical symphonic repertoire ... like that of great literature and great art ... lies in its ability to enrich and deepen human experience.

Artistically, too, the ASO's programming has always been richly diverse, cross-cultural, often outside the box ... but I realize it's not the same thing to Mr. Bennett, who only counted the number of African-American heads in the orchestra to make his argument.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

'Oh! I'm Gonna Put It in the Want Ads!'

"Extra! Extra! Read all about it!'
Wanted! -- Young and single and free!
Experienced in (Revenue Management)
But we'll accept a young trainee!"

with apologies to Honey Cone ... WAC has a job opening!  Haven't seen anything on Craig's List ...

Cleveland Orchestra Announces Record Ticket Sales

From Norman LeBrecht's Slipped Disc blog ... and, as usual, some very interesting comments from readers.

ASO Concert Review: Gandolfi, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov

From Mark Gresham, ArtsATL:

"Everybody Gets a Concerto" Night at ASO

The ASO. Go!
Well, I done gone. And you should too! There are still good seats available for Friday’s (tonight’s) performance – Saturday’s is nearly sold out. At the risk of endangering my high-quality output at work tomorrow due to even less sleep than usual, here is some motivation for you.
The Gandolfi clarinet “concerto” – a two-movement work titled The Nature of Light – is being given its world premiere by ASO Principal Clarinet Laura Ardan. This piece is an instant addition to the repertoire for the instrument: the few clarinetists who make their living as soloists will be all over it. While it is true that there is also not a lot of high-quality concerto repertoire for clarinet, this engaging work is accessible, melodic, and highlights all the assets of the instrument while avoiding some of its pitfalls. In some ways, the work echoes the Copland Concerto written for Benny Goodman, but the effect is much different. Copland used jazz idioms to exploit Goodman’s strengths; here, it is clearly Gandolfi’s voice, recognizable from our choral commission QED and the earlier Garden of Cosmic Speculation expressed within the symphonic tradition. He creatively uses the technical capabilities of the instrument to advance the musical ideas, rather than simply for showy noodling – which is typically the case in solo works for clarinet.
Symphony Hall is kind to wind players when they are out front. Laura was able to employ her unmatched pianissimo playing to great effect, and Gandolfi skillfully maneuvers the clarinet writing to keep its part in a register where the orchestra doesn’t cover the soloist. Mastering the technical as well as the expressive requirements, Laura found the line and structure of this new piece, bringing it to glorious life. Lastly, she looked great in a lovely and flattering gown – almost seeming too glamorous for our old Hall. While there were some first night issues in the orchestra, these should resolve in the next two evenings – it’s not at all an easy piece for them.
Idea: Why not have Laura record the Gandolfi and Copland concertos with the ASO? Related idea: Why not have a series of recordings featuring concerto performances using the orchestra’s principals?
Continuing the evening’s concerto theme, the young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen played the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 5 with unrelenting technique.
The second half was Scheherazade. For this orchestra, it’s basically a party piece and there were exemplary performances all round. Robert Spano takes relaxed tempi that skirt indulgence and allow expressive playing, of which there were some wonderful examples including Carl Nitchie’s bassoon solos. But everyone gets a chance in this piece, from the mini-concerti for the various woodwinds, to the brass (who were really great Thursday night), to the second violins, to Scheherazade herself. She appeared tonight not draped in a red sheet and armed with a knife, but as a strapping Norwegian in a tux, playing with his accustomed muscular tone and flawlessly executing the sustained harmonics that close the piece. A loud, sports-type cheer went up when David Coucheron took his bow. Our rock star.
Despite the fact Scheherazade was probably my earliest experience of symphonic music (I seem to remember about twenty 78 rpm records worth of it), and therefore one of the earliest to be abandoned when I learned there were a few other composers and orchestral works out there, I still had a tingling moment in the 4th movement when the vast blossoming of the full orchestra occurs. But in my old age I also heard at the beginning of that movement sounds that foreshadow Shostakovitch and Prokofiev. Much is revealed in Spano’s interpretation.
I would hazard a guess this will be the best attended series of the season so far. Did the lady in the bed sheet help sell tickets? Maybe a few. But I tend to think it was a combination of Laura Ardan, Michael Gandolfi, the music of Scheherazade, as well as some percentage of people thinking they were going to hear the Prokofiev piano concerto Amy Irving’s character played in The Competition. (“You mean there’s more than one?”). Bottom line – it’s the music, the performers, and the performances that sells tickets.  

So what are you waiting for?  All those ingredients are here, for two more nights only,  Get your (discounted for ASOC) ticket and go!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

'The Audience Won't Notice a Difference'.

A September 2012 Slipped Disc article had us thinking here in Atlanta:  'this couldn't possibly happen to us'.

Robert Birman -- CEO of Louisville Orchestra and author of the oft-quoted quip -- 'the audience won't notice a difference' if the number of musicians is cut -- says that in February, he is stepping down.  A general press release applauds his success, and notes how sad the musicians are to see him go. 
However ... outside the Birman Universe, things are a bit different.  One comment posted in a Slipped Disc article:  

"Mr Birman’s actions as CEO merit the negative cyberspace attention he’s received. He locked out the orchestra and took away the musicians’ health insurance. He advertised for the locked-out musicians’ jobs on Craigslist in the same section you might search for day laborers or office temp workers. He told the press he didn’t think his audience would notice the difference between a 71-member orchestra and a 55-member orchestra. He’s put out one of the dullest, most insulting seasons in recent memory. Half of their opening-night gala concert was spent backing up a Vegas act. If his goal was to transform an orchestra with a proud, innovative tradition into a glorified pops orchestra, I regret that he succeeded."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Job Opening in NJ - High Pay, No Skills Required

Suppose you are a board charged with hiring an orchestra president. You have a candidate that has no significant arts administration experience but photographs well and apparently has some well-connected friends. He has a minor problem with having been a registered sex offender. However, that's a long time ago in a place far, far away, and it all turned out happily, or so you're told. Still, wouldn't that be a resume you would, like, immediately set aside? I guess not.

More Bad Ads Coming Your Way

As if the lady in red wasn’t enough, Presidente’s monthly letter in the concert program promises similar efforts, which were confirmed by the series of ads projected in all their stock photo glory on the big screens prior to Thursday’s ASO concert. The one for the next concert is already appearing on artsATL, “Scottish uncorked”. It makes the tenuous connection between Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, referred to as the “Scottish”, and an anonymous hand decanting what I guess is supposed to be scotch but could also be chardonnay or an IPA. Does a bottle of scotch get uncorked? Do they even serve scotch at the WAC vending carts? If not, will they start? Or at least give free samples? Now there’s something that would boost attendance.

If the ads are intended to appeal to potential concert-goers who know nothing about music, how would they know the ad was about music? You only get it if you already are familiar with the reference, in which case what you would prefer is an ad that actually gives you some useful information.

But the worst of the ads was for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (coming up early February). A blubbering tear- and mascara-stained visage is shown in extreme close-up. It’s repulsive and if they have any sense they will go back to the shelved ad and won’t put the “different” ad out on the street. Can you say, "We run a major artistic institution but have no aesthetic sensibility?" Thanks, I knew you could. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that it’s a well-meaning attempt to emulate some of the minimalist ad art used for European opera and which is being successfully imported by the Met. But opera’s a different product, folks.

This obviously cheap and amateurishly-conceived ad “campaign” flips the bird at anyone with basic knowledge of the symphony concert experience. Whoever signed off on this deserves to sit through a loop of Anne Hathaway’s Les Mis performance for about three hours. And they need to stop looking for marketing concepts at the Love Shack. I’m sorry if that’s harsh, but this is the big leagues, not the promotion of the high-school musical.

Hey, they’re asking for feedback.

It's possible to inject humor into marketing and indeed it's very effective to do so. You want something that draws people in by making them say "I've never been to symphony but these look like fun people - maybe I should give it a try." A really cute spot could be a riff on "Gangnam Style", maybe with the ASYO, but there's an art to doing that kind of spot well, which means it costs money to execute it properly. I'm perfectly serious about this - NASA-Johnson did one that is hilarious but gives people a behind-the-scenes look at the Space Center and some of its personnel. It's humorous but in no way diminishes the integrity of what's behind it - which is most definitely rocket science.

Anyhow, how’s this for an ad campaign – you find several Atlanta-area visual artists (we have a wealth of them here). You give them the assignment to come up with ads for the season’s concerts and trade the exposure for their work for the ad art. If you really get creative (and are willing to work), you identify the artists through a competitive process and then eventually auction the art works used in the ads at a benefit event. Conversation about the symphony; their collaborative approach (no art form can afford to be an island in this town); the music and the related striking images occurs, along with heightened civic pride in our artists and arts organizations. People will support that on multiple levels. It’s synergy and everybody wins.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

An ASO Musician Speaks ... The ASO Board (Hopefully) Listens

The following address was delivered by incoming ASOPA President Paul Murphy to the ASO Board on December 10, 2012.  

"Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.  It is not taken for granted nor lightly by me or by my predecessor, Danny Laufer.  I have been a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for about half of my life.  During my time there have been 3 Music Directors, 3 President/Executive Directors, countless board chairs, but ... I've had only one stand partner.  Musicians are by nature inextricably wedded to our art; the instruments we play and the music we perform define who we are.  Our "jobs" similarly are more than hours clocked for a paycheck ... though we clock at least double the hours we spend onstage in rehearsals and performances.  As Robert Shaw so eloquently expressed, the ideals of music as the "persistent focus of our intelligence, aspiration, and goodwill" are the reason we do what we do.  

We welcome your efforts to repair the bridges, so carefully built over the last 16 years, that were so quickly and severely damaged this year. There is much to be done both within the ASO and the broader Woodruff Arts Center organization.  The Atlanta symphony Orchestra is this institution’s greatest asset and not the great liability we have been portrayed to be.  We all must be diligent and demand accountability from every area of those entrusted to keep our Symphony fiscally healthy.  The startling revelation of the embezzlement of nearly $1.5 million from the WAC pains and angers us all – but especially the musicians, only weeks after making enormous and unprecedented concessions in negotiations.  Exacerbating the situation, the WAC brushed off that figure as a minimal fraction, though so much less than that – trumpeted as insuperably huge by the same WAC – would have made a decent and humane musicians’ settlement possible.  

The musicians were told at the bargaining table as well as privately by Stanley and other senior management that large donations would be forthcoming as long as the musicians accepted the tremendous concessions demanded of us.  Millions of dollars were waiting in the wings but the musicians had to go first.  These promises worked in part to induce us to agree to a plainly unacceptable contract.  We are now almost in the middle of December and have heard no news until this meeting today about any major gift of any kind.  The hope is that what we were told were not just empty promises but words backed up with concrete fact.  We are deeply troubled by the lack of development in this critical area of the ASO.  It is heartening to hear of new monies coming in thanks to the Delta Initiative.  I assure you the musicians will be the loudest to applaud any and all successes in this area. 

During the previous decade we were also induced to make freezes and smaller increases along with concessions that would give us a permanent summer home. A large and positive revenue stream from Verizon Amphitheater would help the ASO to stabilize the annual budget. Neither has come to pass, nor the answer to the persistent question, why does Verizon Amphitheater so chronically underperform?  Recently we were told that it missed its budgeted projection by $900,000, and among other things that it costs too much even to turn on the lights, so we cannot perform there. We can see how little oversight Verizon has had, and wonder what will be found when it is carefully examined and audited, as it needs to be, from inception to present.  How did this happen?

We know it is your passion and generosity that makes this great Orchestra possible, and the dedication and artistry of my colleagues that brings it to lifeTogether we are stronger than anything that is broken within us. But we must expect and demand great performances from all the areas of the organization. We must adapt where needed. But we must all be wary of the diluting or hijacking of our core mission -- a great symphony orchestra providing the highest levels of artistic accomplishment through our performances of great classical music.

I realized during our current “Christmas with the ASO” concerts that I have performed that show well over 100 times since joining this magnificent Orchestra. It’s during this time of year that many of us miss Robert Shaw most keenly. I can’t play the pieces we did this weekend without seeing his blue eyes blazing and feeling the unifying spirit he pulled from each one of us. His words never rang truer... In Atlanta, the arts have a chance to become what the history of man has shown that they should be - the guide and impetus to human understanding, individual integrity and the common good. They are not an opiate, an avoidance, or a barrier but a unifying spirit and labor.”

In that spirit we thank you for your commitment, and your support as the ASO repairs and rebuilds for a better future."

Friday, January 4, 2013

Whatever It Takes - Part I

It will be interesting to see if the advertising for next week's ASO concert series works (I'm assuming those in charge of that department know how to track the effectiveness of their efforts). The selling point that has been chosen is Scheherazade (although I'm more interested in hearing Michael Gandolfi's clarinet concerto, to be premiered by Laura Ardan). The ad (check out picture below) features a sultry, pouty model wrapped in what looks like a red bedsheet and clutching what appears to be a chef's knife (Wusthof would be my guess). I'm still laughing at the enlarged postcard version that just came in the mail.

Exactly what sort of audience do they think this will attract and what expectations would that audience have? And where does the knife come in? Wasn't it the sultan that was going to kill Scheherazade until she started telling the 1,001 stories?

Let's hope no one shows up thinking it's the ballet version...

Seriously, it's an unfortunate choice from another perspective - given the recent and on-going debates about violence in our society and the means that create it - that the organization opted for an extremely literal rendering to plug the concert. Using sex to market classical music is increasingly considered de rigeur - OK, fine. But they could have stopped there. And saved the money on the knife.

WAC Embezzlement: 'Still No Arrests'

In a September 26, 2012 post, ASOC member Beverly Hueter wrote a prescient comment regarding the lock-out:

"... I also think that as we continue to agitate for more and better information about how this whole debacle went down, we will find that the bigger problem lies with those that hold S.R. under their thumb. It looks to me like this whole WAC umbrella structure needs to be scrutinized under a very high-powered microscope. Anyone know a good investigative reporter?"

The next month, as was reported by the AJC, the embezzler of $1.5 million left WAC ... in November the fraud was discovered and the embezzler confessed. 

In December 21, 2012, the AJC attempted to update its story, and got nowhere. 

I scrolled through the comments section on the Dec. 21 story to find this one:

Let's look at their latest Form 990. It was prepared by Sallie P Lawrence, who claims to be a paid preparer, but she lists her address and firm as the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) itself. She does not identify herself as a CPA nor does she list her PTIN number. WAC paid $228,250 for accounting services during the year. The Form 990 is 136 pages, with the first 46 being readable, and the last 90 pages being the Schedule O printed one line per page (unreadable). For expenses, the third largest is simply "Other" for $11.5 million. The two highest paid employees made $744k and $581k. If WAC had hired a CPA firm to conduct an audit and prepare the taxes, rather than doing the taxes with an employee, the CPA firm likely would have confirmed the invoices from the largest vendors, and discovered that there was no one available at the fraudster to confirm. The fraud should have been detected. But perhaps the fraud is larger, and involves the $11.5m Other as well as the outsized salaries (outsized for an organization in the red).

And this one:

"Woodruff would have been better advised to get the prosecution arranged before airing their dirty laundry in public and broadcasting that they aren't responsible stewards of their patron's contributions. I wonder why they went to the US Attorney rather than the Fulton County District Attorney. Perhaps they thought they could get special treatment. Relevant charges under Georgia Law are theft by taking and forgery in the 1st degree.  I will think again before ever contributing to the Woodruff or any of their organizations."

So ... if I were going to perpetrate a successful fraud, I'd need to find another negligent arts institution with a big sloppy budget, overpaid management, which doesn't contract an outside accounting firm.  Is there another one?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Embezzlement 1.01: 'Show Me the Money'

From a December 3, 2012 Adapistration article:

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act 'contains provisions that exempt nonprofit organizations from being subject to the accounting requirements due mostly to the unreasonable burden it would place on smaller and mid size budget organizations.'  

Frankly ... I'm not sure WAC's $100 million-plus operational budget puts the organization in either 'small' or mid-sized' category.  What would my feeling be if I were a substantial contributor to that $100 million?  

See the entire Adapistration article here:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Are You Getting Your 6 Cents Worth?

For those with a larger interest in how arts funding occurs (or doesn't occur) in Atlanta and Georgia, and how the situation with the ASO fits into that, Scott Henry at artsATL has an excellent summary:

For those who don't have that interest, I invite you at least to consider this brief extract from his post:

"According to the National Assembly of Arts Agencies, government funding for the arts this year in the Peach State was just $574,268, a mere 6 cents per resident."

Slipped Disc's Review of Top Stories in 2012 includes mention of ASO

Scroll down to #7 to see some familiar faces ...

Minnesota's Locked-Out Orchestras: Update

This is a fine website from the Minnesota Orchestra, America's most vocal 'activist' orchestra ... chockful of information and links to keep supporters apprised on latest developments.

And regarding the St Paul Chamber Orchestra ...