'I just want to work': BSO musicians say threatened job cuts could disrupt lives, jeopardize needed healthcare

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra timpanist James Wyman fears that the unexpected loss of his salary this summer will delay scheduled surgery that could improve the hearing of his 7-year-old son.

First violinist Holly Jenkins worries that she will struggle to make payments on $106,000 in student loans with the money she can scrape together this summer from dog-walking and private music lessons.

And trumpet player Matt Barker was hit with a double whammy of bad news this week. Not only will he not get paid this summer, his teacher wife learned that her job will probably be eliminated. The couple are expecting their first child, a boy, in September.

Last week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced it was cancelling its summer season, seeking to shorten the performing season from 52 weeks to 40 and cutting musicians’ pay by roughly 20 percent. The news left 75 people with mortgages, college tuition payments and medical bills scrambling to figure out how to make ends meet. The announcement came a week after a bill became law that appeared to resolve the crisis by providing the organization with $3.2 million in additional state funding over the next two years.

“The most disturbing thing was that things were going so well,” Barker, 27, said.

“I beat the odds and got my dream job. My wife and I bought a condo in Columbia last fall. Management and the musicians were working together to resolve the orchestra’s financial problems. Five weeks ago, the BSO’s summer season was announced. We were so optimistic.

“Then on Friday, my wife found out from Facebook that the BSO musicians are being locked out. She had a meeting this morning and was told that half of the elementary music teacher jobs in her school district are being eliminated. This is her first year teaching, so we don’t think she’ll have a job next fall. We don’t know if we’ll have health insurance when she gives birth. These past few days have been really tough.”

Under the musicians’ former contract, which expired in January, the performers earned a base salary of not quite $83,000 a year. The orchestra and players are negotiating a new contract.

BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome has said that cutting summer performances is necessary to stem the symphony’s repeated losses, which have totaled $16 million in the past decade.

“Other major orchestras have concluded that reducing the number of paid weeks is one of the key ways to help ensure a sustainable business model,” he wrote in a statement Tuesday.

Kjome has said the deficit could be bolstered with increased revenue — greater ticket sales, charitable donations and government grants or a larger endowment. But he also said expenses — such as nine weeks of paid vacation time for musicians — also needed to shrink.

The BSO’s announcement was made one week after a bill granting the symphony an additional $3.2 million in funding became law without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature. That grant was designed to keep the orchestra playing over the summer. It is among the funds allocated for several projects that the General Assembly has “fenced off” and Hogan has hesitated to release; the governor’s office has expressed concerned that Maryland will soon face a significant budget shortfall and said he is still reviewing the spending.

The musicians union responded by creating a form email urging the governor to free up money for the Symphony. Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the players’ committee, said that 2,345 emails from 42 states were emailed to Hogan’s office as of Tuesday (including 1,630 from Maryland). The governor’s office on Wednesday confirmed receiving about 1,750 emails.

More than 70 Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday sent a letter to Hogan calling on him to release $1.6 million of the funding designated for the BSO. In all, 18 senators and 54 delegates signed the letter that partially blamed Hogan’s reluctance to release the funds for the symphony’s abrupt cancellation of its summer concert series and its move to cut musicians’ pay and vacation time.

“It is our understanding that these decisions were made, in part, because of uncertainty whether you would release funding for the upcoming fiscal year,” the letter states. “We are concerned that these actions may have an irreversible impact on the quality of this world-class orchestra and will unfairly impact the BSO musicians and their families.”

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci responded in an email to The Sun, saying, “Legislators could have worked with us to provide this funding immediately, but instead chose to fence it off for later.” He pointed out that the BSO “receives more grant money from the state than any arts organization” and said officials were discussing a potential bridge loan.

Prechtl said the musicians “were caught completely off-guard that their paychecks will end in less than a month.”

Kjome said Tuesday in his statement that if the musicians agree to a reduced performing year, the symphony would provide them with health insurance year-round. In addition, he said the musicians wouldn’t be entirely without pay over the summer.

“Similar to an approach that has been taken by other major orchestras, the BSO has proposed that along with compensation during the 40 week season, there would also be a stipend paid during each of the non-working weeks,” Kjome said in the statement.

He suggested that the musicians could supplement their income by performing in summer music festivals.

But Barker said that it’s his understanding “that the stipend would come out to just a few hundred dollars a week.” Wyman added that most orchestras have already hired all the musicians they’ll need for this summer’s concerts.

When asked if the musicians would receive health insurance this summer if they decline the proposed contract, Kjome did not respond.

Wyman found out that he would be without an income this summer the week before he and his wife are scheduled to close on their new house. They’re moving from Randallstown in Baltimore County to Westminster because they want their three young children to attend Carroll County schools.

Taking on a new mortgage as their income nosedives would be a be a strain under any circumstances. But, that’s not the worst of it.

“The biggest, scariest thing is thinking that we're going to lose our health insurance this summer,” Wyman said.

“My middle child [Broden] has had some health setbacks because he was born prematurely. He’s being monitored for everything you can think of. Developmentally, he’s six months to a year behind other kids his age. But he’s been getting speech therapy, occupational therapy and other kinds of help. He’s close to getting caught up with his classmates.”

Wyman and his wife had high hopes that surgery would be scheduled for this summer. Tubes would be inserted into Broden’s ears that would make it easier for him to hear and that could accelerate the progress he’s been making. But without medical insurance, Wyman said, that surgery will have to be indefinitely postponed.

“Without health insurance, we can’t function as a family,” Wyman said. “I’ve been on the phone the past few days with colleagues from around the country begging for work. I will do anything I can that will bring home a paycheck for my kids.”

First violinist Holly Jenkins learned less than three hours before her performance last Thursday that she wouldn’t get paid this summer.

“A friend texted me the article in The Baltimore Sun,” she said.

”It was really horrible. I was so shocked and hurt, I was nauseated before the performance. I went on stage weeping.”

To hone her skills to the level required for a professional career, Jenkins, now 27, took out student loans that now total $106,000 to finance her bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and her master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

For two years, it seemed as though her sacrifice was worth it. She was hired by the BSO in 2016. Within a short time, she was promoted from the second violin section to the first.

Determined to pay off her loans before she turns 40, Jenkins has been living frugally. She shares a small apartment with a roommate near Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

She’s not home often; like other BSO musicians, Jenkins frequently works six-day weeks, with just Mondays off. Even on her “days off” and when she’s on vacation, Jenkins rehearses four to five hours a day — as do most colleagues.

That’s the minimum amount of work necessary to remain at peak performance level, she said.

Losing her salary each summer would mean that she likely couldn’t pay off her student loans before 2060, the year she’ll turn 68.

“When I was hired two years ago, I thought, ‘Wow. This is it. I’m going to be OK,’” she said.

“But if the proposal for the shortened season goes through, I’m going to start auditioning for positions with other orchestras.

”I just want to work.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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