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BSO musicians' contract extension expired late Tuesday

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians’ four-month contract extension expired late Tuesday.

On the surface, nothing much has changed. The players aren’t on strike and management hasn’t locked them out. The concerts scheduled for this weekend will be performed as planned in Baltimore and Bethesda, and the musicians will get paid under the provisions of the previous bargaining agreement. Negotiations are continuing, an unusual but not unprecedented arrangement known as “playing and talking.” Audiences are unlikely to notice anything out of the ordinary.

For now, all the drama is in the music. But tensions continue to simmer beneath the surface. The musicians had been operating under a four-month extension of their previous one-year contract that expired Sept. 9. The players sought an additional extension, Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Players Committee said. But a press release issued Wednesday by the players union said that the symphony’s management “refuses to extend [the] musicians’ contract.”

That may be a sign that the organization wants the issues dividing the two sides to be resolved sooner rather than later. (Contract extensions tend to delay bargaining by making both sides feel more secure, Mulligan said.)

In a statement announcing the expiration of the contract extension, BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome took a conciliatory tone without backing away from management’s position that a shortened performance schedule and financial concessions are essential for the orchestra’s continued viability.

“The BSO will operate under the terms of the expired agreement as negotiations continue, and the pay and benefits structure will continue without change at this time,” the statement said.

“The BSO Board of Directors and management greatly appreciate and value the members of our orchestra and admire their superb musicianship. Creating a stronger financial position and sustainable business model will help ensure that Baltimore and Maryland are home to a fine orchestra for many years to come, with a bright future and an organization better able to serve its family of audience members and donors, along with our broader community.”

The Symphony’s management is seeking to cut the orchestra’s schedule from 52 weeks a year to 40 weeks, citing $16 million in losses over the past 10 years. The players said in their statement the reduced schedule would result in a minimum of a 20 percent cut in salaries and benefits — musicians now receive base pay of $82,742 a year — and effectively eliminate a summer season.

The orchestra’s $28 million budget has been insufficient to cover its expenses. As a result, the BSO has been pulling more than $3.5 million a year from its $62.4 million endowment to support its operations, potentially jeopardizing the organization’s long-term financial health.

Musicians claim the reduced schedule would send the BSO into a downward spiral by demoting the orchestra from “a world-class symphony into a part-time regional orchestra” that would make it difficult to attract and retain the most talented performers. This destructive direction would damage the Baltimore Symphony for generations to come,” the union statement said.

If the orchestra is having trouble making ends meet, Mulligan said, “it's not because of musician expense. The aggregate that the symphony has spent on the musicians in the past decade has not kept up with inflation.”

In response to the turmoil, donors and supporters of the musicians formed a committee called “Save Our BSO.”

Negotiations on substantive issues are expected to resume Jan. 29, Mulligan said.

In their statement, the players appeared to rule out the possibiliy of a strike for the forseeable future.

They said the musicians will “continue playing on stage … at the highest professional level for our audiences unless management locks out or unilaterally stops respecting contract terms.”

“We love Baltimore,” Mulligan said. “We want to keep a world-class orchestra in the state and keep providing transcendent music for Baltimore and for Maryland.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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