Broad smiles and upbeat comments are expected Wednesday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall when details of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2015-2016 season, the organization's centennial, will be unveiled.
But the mood is mixed among the musicians. They are expressing frustration with the number of open positions, increased workload and what they perceive to be artistic weak spots — as well as longstanding dissatisfaction over annual base pay, currently $71,214. They are using an outside public relations firm to help them make their case.
"We feel we are being taken for granted," says Mary Plaine, one of the BSO's two librarians and a member of the players' committee, which is the elected leadership of the orchestra's union.
Going public now, as the BSO tries to build enthusiasm for its milestone — and 18 months before the contract is to expire — took management by surprise.
"I think the timing of this is odd, just as we are about to announce next season," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham, who said that raising these issues would be more appropriate closer to negotiations for a new contract; the current one ends in September 2016. "We're going to use the centennial season to increase the visibility of the orchestra and get more people to come and to ensure an artistically vibrant orchestra."
During two group interviews in recent weeks with the players' committee, the musicians offered up a volley of criticisms. But violinist Greg Mulligan, co-chair of the players' committee, adopted a more conciliatory, hopeful tone late last week in describing their priorities.
"Of course, we want to celebrate this 100th anniversary," he said. "And there is no rift between musicians and management and the board. We are on the same page. But we are alarmed that the number of [full-time musicians] has gotten so low. We're two out of the three words 'Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.' We want the number one priority to be the symphony orchestra."
Fifteen years ago, full-time orchestra members numbered 98 — 96 players and the two librarians. BSO members would like that level restored, something that would take a boost to the orchestra's $27 million budget. (Over that same period, the budget peaked at about $30 million in 2005-2006 and fell to a low of about $24 million in 2010-2011. The BSO encountered deficit years when it saw drops in contributions and ticket sales.)
The current contract, which the players ratified in September 2013, calls for a minimum of 83 musicians (including librarians). As of this month, there are 77 full-time players and two librarians. Meecham said that he expects new hires to bring the total closer to the contractual minimum by the end of this season, the remainder next season.
Musicians have also been disappointed with turnout when auditions are held.
"Musicians can make more money elsewhere," Mulligan said.
As examples, Mulligan quoted figures from a recent International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) report that showed a base salary of $104,000 for the Pittsburgh Symphony ($32 million budget) and $95,680 for the Cincinnati Symphony ($40 million budget).
After a raise next year, BSO base pay will be $75,024, still below the $78,000 range they reached during the 2008-2009 season before cutbacks to the orchestra's budget.
For that salary, a musician will typically play between 235 and 250 of the BSO's combined total of about 300 rehearsals and performances this season, according to Meecham. Many members also teach outside to supplement their income.
As for recent vacancies in the BSO, Mulligan questioned the level of musicians trying out.
"We are seeing fewer applicants and fewer great applicants," he said.
Meecham disagrees, noting that musicians on the audition committee vote on applicants, as does music director Marin Alsop, who was unavailable to speak for this article.
"If there were concerns on the part of musicians about the quality of candidates, the musicians would have exercised their right to vote accordingly," he wrote in a follow-up email.
Over the past three years, the orchestra filled 11 out of 13 "key positions with the very best candidates," Meecham wrote. He said two auditions had failed to result in hires.
But musicians are concerned that management and the public may come to expect an orchestra of around 80, when they see 96 as the optimal number.
"The Orioles need 25 players; we don't want to play our 'games' with only 80 percent of the roster," Mulligan said.
Jay Blumenthal, director of the American Federation of Musicians' Symphonic Services Division in New York, echoed that view.
"An orchestra suffers when there are unfilled positions," Blumenthal said. "I would like to see Baltimore play with a full complement [of 96], because that's what a symphony is."
According to ICSOM research, several U.S. orchestras have agreed to allow temporary vacancies. The Chicago Symphony, for example, went from 111 to 106; the Indianapolis Symphony from 87 to 74. Others have expanded; the San Francisco Symphony went from 103 to 106, the Dallas Symphony from 82 to 90.
As other orchestras do, the BSO uses substitute players; that does not always sit well with full-timers.
"It takes a while for a person to settle into an orchestra," said Andrew Balio, the BSO's principal trumpet. "We don't want to compromise our playing. But we feel we are barely holding it together."
That's not necessarily the way it registers in the concert hall. The BSO regularly receives positive reviews of performances at Meyerhoff Hall and the orchestra's second home in North Bethesda, the Music Center at Strathmore.
Meecham said that "the BSO is able to attract high quality substitute players without any difficulty. This isn't to say that this is a long-term solution, but … there is full confidence in the quality of the whole orchestra."
The musicians also worry about the orchestra's direction as they see the educational activities the BSO has undertaken in recent years.
"Is it a primarily educational organization? Sometimes it feels that's the direction some people want to take it," said violinist Rebecca Nichols. "We want to help nurture young musicians, but the volume of the work affects our ability to do our jobs."
A typical subscription concert series, Mulligan says, requires four rehearsals with the orchestra, two performances at the Meyerhoff and one at Strathmore, in addition to necessary individual preparation.
Educational programming — which includes playing "side by side" with student musicians — calls for learning, rehearsing and performing an additional set of repertoire.
Mulligan contends that such duties add to the physical demands — and risk, such as overuse injuries.
Meecham makes no apologies for the educational activities.
"I, along with Marin and the board, believe this is a strategy that leads to greater relevance in the community and makes it more likely to engender financial support," Meecham said.
This is not the first time BSO musicians have publicly complained. In 2005, the then players' committee controversially objected to the search process that led to Alsop's appointment. That did not give the players a public relations boost. Whether they gain any advantage from this fresh criticism remains to be seen.
"The appropriate time to bring up the issues they're talking about now is in 2016 when we start discussing a new contract," Meecham said." I meet with the committee regularly. Last week, we had a meeting about how to accelerate auditions. We're on the same page."
But David Nevins, of Nevins and Associates, the Towson-based PR firm representing the musicians, said, "This is to help my friends better tell their story."
Drew McManus, a Chicago-based orchestra consultant, Peabody Conservatory-trained musician and blogger, said musicians are engaging PR teams now well in advance of contract talks.
"But this tends to be a sloppy process and musicians tend not to end up in a better place," McManus said.
Yet, he noted that orchestra managements can be slow to deal with dissension.
"If you have a high degree of dissatisfaction, it goes against the value of an orchestra celebrating any milestone," McManus said. "Why not spend the time to make it a happier place?"
For any sour notes expressed in conversation, BSO musicians are quick to praise the chair of the BSO board, Barbara Bozzuto (she was unavailable for comment), and to note grounds for optimism.
"We do have two amazing halls, amazing soloists, great guest conductors and a music director who energizes the public," Balio said. "Why can't we put all of this together and move the BSO into the next echelon?"