There is a great deal of buzz surrounding the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s current lockout of its players, the second in as many years. The news has made the New York Times, National Public Radio, and has spread to other world-class orchestras that are sending strong messages in support of the ASO players, which have not been able to reach an agreement with management regarding the current season. With so much available information about the conflict, I won’t attempt to add any news. However, I feel compelled to shed light on stakeholders in these talks that are being summarily ignored.
The nearly fifty-year-old Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is considered world-class, despite the Woodruff Arts Center President and Chief Executive Officer Virginia Hepner’s assertion that such a thing is “up to anyone to decide” (from a public radio interview earlier this week). This comes from the person in charge of the organization that runs the ASO. World-class has a simple definition: “among the best of its kind in the world.” This is not a term used lightly by anyone. World-class is only used to describe something with a standard of excellence that is acclaimed – physical evidence that it is appreciated and valued around the globe. In the case of the ASO, it is a well-earned distinction, not because Atlanta’s metropolitan area happens to have a large number of great musicians, but because of the reputation of the orchestra, its Grammy Awards, and competitive salaries – all of which have drawn players from around the world to its ranks; hence, world-class.
Yet somehow, amidst the bashing of the management and the massive support for the players, one component – yet again – remains unheralded and very much taken for granted: the ASO Chorus. Over 200 singers strong, the ASOC is also world-class. The singers are also symphony musicians. The only difference is that they are not paid. So where do they fall in this discussion? What say have they? These individuals give freely of their time, energy, and talent to be part of world-class music-making. Many of the singers are professional musicians, music educators, or choir directors with full-time jobs of their own. Even those who work outside the field of music have had some sort of professional training. What’s more, the chorus’s founding director is hailed as one of the most significant figures in the history of choral music. It was Robert Shaw who called for the symphony to elevate its players to full-time status in 1968 – allegedly a condition of his contract renewal after his first year as the symphony’s conductor. Now, some forty-six years later, the players and management are at a fork in the road that stands to effectively undo Shaw’s legacy – one that created full compensation for one set of musicians, the players, while attracting another set with no compensation, the chorus. From both, he created musical gold. I’m not the first to say it, but it’s true: Robert Shaw wouldn’t stand for any of these shenanigans.
Here are the facts: nearly all of the ASO’s seventeen Grammy-winning albums have featured the chorus. The ASO boasts a total of twenty-seven Grammy Awards, of which no less than twelve were for Best Choral Performance.
If there’s going to be a fight on behalf of musicians, I say fight for all of them, not just the ones earning a salary.