Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Looming schedule cuts imperil Baltimore Symphony's status as 'world class' orchestra, musicians say

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

After losing $16 million over the past 10 years, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is considering paring back its schedule — a move musicians say will demote the BSO from “a world-class symphony into a part-time regional orchestra.”

Musicians, who had been playing without a contract since Sept. 9, agreed Thursday to a four-month extension of the previous collective bargaining agreement. They did so two days after receiving a seismic offer from management that would fundamentally change the status of the BSO.

That offer called for reducing the orchestra’s current status as a 52-week ensemble — there are about 15 in the country — to one with a 40-week season. The BSO has been a 52-week orchestra for 35 years. A reduction of 12 weeks would entail a decrease in base salaries for musicians and effectively eliminate a summer season.

“It was a total shock,” said violinist Greg Mulligan, co-chair of the players’ committee. “We do not intend to become a less-than-52-week orchestra or have our annual pay slashed.”

In a statement, the musicians said that management “is openly calling for conversion … from a full-time, world-class symphony orchestra into a part-time regional orchestra,” a move they said reflects a view that Baltimore can not “continue to sustain a top-level institution.”

Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, released a statement saying that the orchestra has sustained “$16 million in losses over the past ten years” and that “a careful analysis of our current financial situation” has lead to the conclusion that it is “not feasible to maintain our current business model as a 52-week orchestra.”

Kjome said in an email to the Sun that discussions within the BSO about cutting back on season length “extend back many years.”

The BSO’s annual operating budget is about $28 million. The organization draws more than $3.5 million a year from its $62.3 million endowment to support its operations.

Musicians counter that the deficits are not the result of players’ salaries, which have been flat for the past decade.

“Every time we asked for an increase, they told us to just give them a little more time,” Mulligan said. “They would pare the budget back, only to start growing it again, but not to pay musicians more. They can’t seem to stop themselves from spending money they don’t have.”

Kjome said that “intensive efforts to increase revenues and manage costs” failed to prevent the deficits. He described the 52-week model as infeasible going forward, “based on careful financial and market analysis… Other orchestras have taken this path before us and have maintained a high level of artistic accomplishment.”

Those orchestras include the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Such orchestras “are still enriching their communities and giving their audiences world-class performances,” Kjome said. “Season length is not a barometer of artistic quality. We must align the length of our season, and the number of concerts we present, to market demand and philanthropic opportunity.”

Kjome said that the BSO would maintain a full schedule of classical and pops concerts, holiday performances, educational and special events.

“So our subscribers will not experience a reduction in the concert schedule,” he said.

Chicago-based arts consultant and orchestra-watcher Drew McManus, author of the Adaptistration web site, said that an orchestra reducing its schedule from 52 weeks can threaten revenue streams and public support.

“At the very least,” McManus said, “easing down to something like a 48-to-50-week length, rather than one large cut, would be a much safer approach and run a far smaller risk of losing supporters that may not be interested in so much retraction.”

McManus noted that the Saint Louis Symphony’s reductiom from 52 to 42 weeks about 15 years ago was followed by management upheaval.

“It didn’t take long for the board to feel the dynamic pain from losing financial and political support they assumed would remain unchanged,” McManus said. “It took the introduction of a new CEO and new board commitment to reverse course before they went too far down that path.”

The orchestra eventually added back some weeks to the contract and increased musician salaries. The base salary in the Saint Louis Symphony, which now has a 43-week contract, is $89,495 this season, compared to $80,662 for the BSO’s current 52-week season.

“Which of those two ensembles is major and which one isn’t?” McManus said.

Still, the pride factor of a full-year contract remains strong at the BSO.

“It is particularly galling to come home from a world-class tour [of Scotland, England and Ireland in August] and be given this offer,” Mulligan said. “In my opinion, it seems that they are trying to balance the budget on the backs of the musicians. I hope they decide that it’s in everybody’s interest to come up with a reasonable deal.”

The contract offer, meanwhile, would cut the annual pay of a musician making base salary by 16.6 percent, Mulligan said. Adding in reductions to health care benefits, he said, cuts base pay 26.8 percent for a single person and 28 percent for someone with family insurance.

In their statement, the players said that “there is no doubt that many musicians would leave the BSO if this current plan were implemented. So we are determined to garner support from the community to stand against this ill-conceived plan.”

Mulligan said that no further meetings with management are currently scheduled.

“But I hope something will be planned soon,” he said. “We hope to work this out across the bargaining table.”

Kjmoe said he looks “forward to continued discussions as we negotiate a long-term agreement,” but had no “additional information to share at this point.”

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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