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$3.2 million grant from Maryland legislature may help BSO settle contract dispute

In a few weeks, Governor Larry Hogan is expected to sign a bill granting an additional $3.2 million to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the next two years — a potentially crucial step toward resolving a contentious labor dispute and allowing the organization to remain a year-round ensemble.

“We are hopeful and optimistic that the bill will become law,” Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, said. “A tentative date has been set for the signing ceremony and we anticipate having a firm date in the coming weeks. We are extremely grateful to the General Assembly of Maryland for the passage of this important bill which provides not only financial support but a work group to examine our business model.”

The turmoil that has roiled Baltimore’s classical music circles for the past five months isn’t over yet.

The musicians are still playing without a contract, and negotiations on a new labor agreement continue. The symphony’s underlying financial issues — problems that convinced management that downsizing to a 40-week season was an unfortunate necessity — haven’t disappeared. To resolve those challenges, Kjome estimates that the BSO must raise an additional $40 million for the endowment. That’s a daunting, though not impossible, task.

But for the first time, both sides sound optimistic that there is a path forward to resolve their differences, and they say they’re working together instead of in opposition.

“This has been a very, very positive development,” said Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the Players Committee (the musicians’ union). “We’re pulling in the same direction now. All signs are that we will have productive bargaining sessions.”

How that tune has changed.

The ruckus erupted after the BSO announced Nov. 1 that it was considering paring back the performance schedule from 52 weeks to 40 weeks a year, essentially eliminating a summer season. The musicians claimed the reduction would demote the ensemble from “a world-class symphony into a part-time regional orchestra.”

Management contended that the cuts were necessary to stem the organization’s financial bleeding. Kjome pointed out that the orchestra had sustained $16 million in losses during the past decade.

But public sentiment seemed to side with the musicians.

The season-shortening proposal spawned a new committee of BSO donors and called “Save Our BSO.” There was a free concert in January at the Baltimore Basilica aimed at rallying support for the musicians, and endorsements by such influential figures as former governor Martin O’Malley.

The Baltimore City Council passed a resolution in February urging the state legislature to increase its support for the symphony. A few days later, state Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat representing North Baltimore, introduced the John C. Merrill Act, named in honor of the late, longtime BSO violinist. The bill was approved by the House of Delegates on March 12 and by the state Senate 19 days later.

House Bill 1404 provides $1.6 million to the symphony for each of the next two fiscal years. That money is in addition to the $3.3 million the BSO already will receive this year from state and local funds.

Even more crucially, the bill establishes a working group of administrators, musicians, board members and a chair who will be appointed by legislators. The committee will examine the organization’s financial underpinnings and recommend solutions for improving the orchestra’s bottom line.

Prechtl said that among other things, the work group will attempt to cut health care expenses and address methods for developing a younger and more racially diverse audience. The committee has an Oct. 1 deadline to submit its preliminary report.

“That is a very short timeline to do all the things that this group will need to do to stem the tide of deficits,” Prechtl said. “The musicians are aligned with management in that we do not support running in the red. Where we have differed is how to accomplish that goal.”

He added that “while nobody’s thinking we’re going to get an enormous salary hike,” musicians hope to negotiate a cost of living increase in the next contract.

Kjome thinks that increasing the endowment will be key toward stabilizing the organization.

The BSO’s annual operating budget is about $28 million, and it draws roughly $3.6 million a year from its $60 million endowment to support its operations. If the BSO could increase its endowment to $100 million, Kjome said, it could draw almost $2 million annually in additional operating funds — or roughly the sum needed to break even at the group’s current spending levels.

Prechtl and Kjome said they have received heartening signals that benefactors would consider either making new cash contributions or increasing their existing gifts.

“The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays a vital role in Maryland,” Kjome said.

The arts contributed $1.32 billion to the Free State economy in 2016, according to a report by the Maryland State Arts Council, and supported the equivalent of 16,624 full-time jobs.

Prechtl thinks the legislature’s action changed the conversation by underscoring the BSO’s importance to the state.

“Some donors have been sitting on the sidelines and waiting to see what the legislature would do,” Prechtl said. “People don’t want to throw good money after bad. But I think we’ll see some of those donors coming back into the fold.”

It is perhaps a positive sign that symphony management will unveil its summer 2019 season in the next several days — a season that previously had been up in the air.

Thursday the orchestra announced its lineup for its third annual new music festival, to be held June 19-22 at several Baltimore venues. The festival of contemporary classical music will highlight female composers and will include free performances as well as one ticketed event, a block party and round-table discussions with the composers. Kjome said the orchestra also will announce additional summer concerts “including some programs that are audience favorites” on April 24.

“One of the most exciting and rewarding things that has happened has been the outpouring of love we’ve received from the community,” Prechtl said. “They have seen that we are a world-class orchestra, and they want to help us find a way to keep what we have built.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

A previous version of this story misstated the BSO's contributions to the state's economy. The arts as a whole contributed more than $1 billion and nearly 17,000 jobs to Maryland’s economy. The Sun regrets the error.
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