by William Short, principal bassoonist
Last February, Keith Buncke achieved what many strive for but few obtain: a full-time position in one of the nation’s preeminent orchestras. At the astonishing age of 20, he cemented his place as one of his generation’s finest musicians with his appointment as Principal Bassoon of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Barely seven months later, due to a management-imposed lockout of the ASO Musicians - the second in as many years - he finds himself beginning his professional career on a picket line. Last week, I spoke with him about this whiplash-inducing reversal.
Keith won his position after successfully completing two trial weeks, during which he performed with the Atlanta Symphony and was evaluated by his now-colleagues. Speaking about those weeks, Keith recalls almost wistfully, “It was all about the music.” Of course, Keith was underplaying the difficulty of the process he had to go through. He was one of two bassoonists awarded a trial with the orchestra after successfully completing an open audition the previous fall. In addition to the demands of performing under an unusual amount of scrutiny, in the first of these weeks, he had to play what he describes as an “in-orchestra audition.” During this, a portion of a rehearsal was set aside for him to play various major solos from the orchestral repertoire with the orchestra. During his second trial week, the night before his final concert with the Orchestra, he received a call from the Orchestra’s personnel manager. He won.
By the time June rolled around, though, Keith found himself thinking, “Huh. I don’t have a contract yet.” This was his first clue that something was amiss in the ASO’s contract negotiations. Two weeks before the season was to begin, he moved to Atlanta from Philadelphia, where he had been a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. By then, it was very clear that something was seriously wrong with what should have been a dream come true. On September 7, management chose to lock out its musicians after refusing requests for meetings in the final hours before the ASO’s contract expired. Keith describes the experience since as “surreal.”
The excitement he felt when he won the position has been replaced by a state of disbelief. His colleagues find themselves asking, “Is this really happening again?” Two years ago, after a brief lockout, the ASO Musicians accepted cuts with the explicit understanding that it would be a one-time concession. Today, that promise has proven empty, with management demanding drastic cuts to healthcare (as well as the right to unilaterally change health plans without negotiation) and management control over both the size of the orchestra and the timeline for filling positions. Remarkably, though, Keith’s fundamental optimism for the future of the orchestra is unchanged: “Obviously, it’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s really great to see the kind of pride…the love and the passion that people have for what we do. It’s a great unifying force, both for the musicians and for the larger community. It gives me a lot of hope for the situation.”
This is representative of Keith’s perspective - turning a profoundly disheartening situation into an opportunity for optimism for the future. “I don’t have a cynical view of the future of the orchestra. I think it’s a very relevant institution.” This belief in its relevance was bolstered by a recent self-produced concert by the Atlanta Symphony Musicians. In a followup email, he described the performance as “a welcome salve and inspiration; being locked out is kind of like walking through a blizzard without a coat on…but I think continuing to make beautiful music is the healthiest and most powerful thing we can do right now.” Despite the recent news that ASO management had just announced the cancellation of the first six weeks of concerts, “it was great to be reminded of the irreplaceable feeling of being onstage making music with awesome musicians.”
Always looking to the future, perhaps the most poignant thing Keith said encapsulates the stark reality of the ASO Musicians’ situation and the ever-present determination of this remarkable group of artists to preserve their storied institution: “I’m really looking forward to our first concert after the lockout ends.”
Three Ways You Can Help Support ATL Symphony Musicians
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association (ASOPA) is an entity that represents the musicians in the collective bargaining process and acts as a disbursement agency during the suspension of their normal income. The players receive 100% of all donations to ASOPA. Donate to ASOPA online at www.atlsymphonymusicians.com.
ATL Symphony Musicians Foundation is a non-profit, tax-exempt pending organization providing employment opportunities for professional musicians through community outreach and educational programs. The Foundation's mission is to keep the players engaged with the community and schools while paying them a living wage. Currently, the Foundation is accepting donations which are provisionally tax-deductible (the Foundation is waiting for tax-exempt status to be granted). Find the Foundation online at www.atlsmfoundation.org.
Save Our Symphony Atlanta is a non-profit, tax-exempt pending citizen’s advocacy group, seeking to raise local, national, and international awareness about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. SOSA will conduct large-scale fund-raising for its awareness mission, but will not provide funds to the musicians. SOSA will steer donors wishing to support the players to ASOPA, which provides disbursements, and the ATL Symphony Musicians Foundation, which provides fair-wage employment opportunities through playing and educational outreach. Find SOSA on Facebook and Twitter.