By Bo Emerson
For the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it never rains but it pours.
On top of money troubles and bitter ongoing contract negotiations, the ASO has provoked a nasty public backlash when it was reported that the orchestra disinvited choruses from Lassiter and Walton high schools from the ASO’s holiday programs because the choirs weren’t “diverse enough.”
Websites lit up with negative responses.
“The ASO has just lost my business,” posted Linda McMichael, mother of a Cobb County high schooler. “They should be sued for racism.”
Earlier this week, Stanley Romanstein, president and CEO of the ASO, told Channel 2 Action News, “We want the stages of the Atlanta Symphony, whether here, Verizon, or Chastain, to reflect the diversity of Atlanta.”
But contacted Friday afternoon, Romanstein said he was referring to the eclectic programming offered by the ASO. The symphony has previously performed with the like of ZZ Topp and Dolly Parton.
“My comment was taken out of context,” said Romanstein, “and I’m not very happy about that.”
To the rescue Friday came the ASO Players Association, making an offer to stage free concerts at Lassiter and Walton.
“The musicians have felt kind of helpless through this whole thing, trying to repair the relationships with the community,” said players representative and ASO principal trombonist Colin Williams. “The only way we know how is by performing.”
Jay Dillon, spokesman for Cobb County schools, said he didn’t know whether the schools were aware of the offer.
“I will forward it to them as it seems like a reasonable remedy,” he said.
Romanstein said the controversy developed through a “misunderstanding.” Four years ago, he said, the ASO invited the choirs at Lassiter and Walton to participate in the symphony’s yearly holiday performances, which include Christmas carols, Hanukkah songs and appearances by Santa Claus. The ASO has a long tradition of performing with amateur groups, including the Atlanta Boy Choir and glee clubs at Spelman and Morehouse colleges.
At the end of the 2010 season, the schools were told the ASO could collaborate with Grady High School in 2012.
“We wanted to make sure other people had a chance,” said Romanstein. “The directors were cordial and understanding and thanked us for the opportunity to sing with the ASO. … How this got twisted on Monday into a racial battle … is really alarming.”
It was more trouble at a time that the ASO has plenty. The symphony has operated at a deficit during the economic turndown and is currently $20 million in debt. In the meantime, management at the symphony is embroiled in increasingly contentious negotiations with the musicians union, seeking to reduce musician salaries in order to trim the deficit.
Should the players come to management’s rescue in what has become a public relations faux pas, that would be fine with the players, said trombonist Williams.
“Everyone wins,” he said.