Monday, September 15, 2014

Size matters in Atlanta

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Howard Pousner gets to the nub of the dispute between management and musicians in the Atlanta Symphony lockout: Whether an ensemble smaller than the current complement of 88 – down from 95 in the 2011-12 season – crosses a threshold that “must not be crossed” if a “full, robust and world-class symphony orchestra” is to be maintained, as the orchestra’s chief conductors, Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles, wrote in a letter to management before the Sept. 7 lockout:

The Atlanta Symphony has been running in the red for 12 consecutive seasons. If the orchestra cannot increase its revenue through fund-raising and ticket sales – not impossible: a $37 million budget is not excessive in a metro area of 5.5 million people (the Baltimore Symphony maintains a $27 million budget in a metro area with half the population of Atlanta’s) – then, clearly, something has to give.

Size matters in a lot of symphonic music, especially in Mahler, Richard Strauss, the big Stravinsky ballet scores and other late-romantic and early modern repertory. It is possible to give credible performances of such works with reduced strings – when orchestras shrink, most of the shrinkage is absorbed by string sections – but rarely possible to achieve great performances.

I’ve heard the Richmond Symphony and Virginia Symphony play big opuses of Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius and Nielsen with understrength string sections. They were readings of high intensity and deep musicality, but with unavoidable imbalances between strings and winds and a marked loss of sonic punch, especially when performed in full-size concert halls.

Ensemble cohesion matters as much as size. I’ve heard many orchestral performances in which substantial numbers of free-lance substitutes filled out string and wind sections. Better balances and more punch inevitably were offset by less refinement, expressivity and stylistic fluency.

If the plan in Atlanta is to shrink to a fulltime “core” needing the addition of several dozen substitutes to play large-scale works, then the conductors and locked-out musicians are correct in anticipating that the Atlanta Symphony would be an entirely different orchestra. From week to week, even.

Would it remain a “world-class” orchestra? Doubtful, even if one were to grant that it has been a top-tier ensemble. (Not many critics would rate it that highly.)

With intelligent artistic guidance, a downsized Atlanta Symphony might be remade into a estimable classical-scale orchestra, comparable to such ensembles as the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, capable of playing first-rate Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, even Brahms and Dvořák, and of accompanying most of the standard concerto repertory and the great Atlanta Symphony Chorus that Robert Shaw built.

Would such an orchestra project properly in the Woodruff Arts Center’s 1,762-seat Atlanta Symphony Hall? Or would it need to move to a smaller venue? Since the orchestra currently operates as part of the Woodruff Center, a move presumably would entail a new corporate arrangement. Assuming that could be managed, would playing in a smaller hall generate enough ticket revenue?

Affecting cost savings by paying fewer musicians is a more complex proposition than the usual kind of corporate downsizing.

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UPDATE (Sept. 18): A reader points out other pertinent numbers, in an article by Jenny Jarvie on the website Musicians’ earnings “represent about 25 percent of the total [Atlanta Symphony] budget. According to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, that is substantially lower than top orchestras around the country, which average about 40 percent.”

The full article: