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Baltimore Symphony donors form committee to 'Save Our BSO,' fight musician pay cuts

Donors and supporters of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have formed a committee called “Save Our BSO” in response to management’s proposal to reduce its musical season by weeks and cut musicians’ pay.

Through letters to the BSO board, the committee of about 20 members is urging management to reconsider the cuts, asserting that orchestra management has chosen not to make use of all available funds. The changes, they wrote, would reduce the “world-class orchestra to a regional ensemble.”

Orchestra management and musicians have been in contract negotiations since September, when an extension of a collective bargaining agreement expired. The discord comes on the heels of the orchestra’s first international tour in 13 years.

“We’re very disturbed by recent developments — that is the catalyst for us getting together,” said committee member John Warshawsky, a BSO donor and attorney who is also an amateur violinist.

“It’s heartbreaking because we came off such a high off the [BSO] concerts in Ireland in [August], and then all of a sudden, out of the blue — it’s a terrible proposal from management.”

On Oct. 30, BSO musicians received an offer from management proposing a reduced season, slashed from 52 weeks to 40 weeks of employment, according to BSO Musicians Players Committee co-chairs Brian Prechtl and Greg Mulligan. This proposal would mean that musicians take at least a 19 percent pay cut, they said.

That same month, the Save Our BSO organization was formed by a group of the orchestra’s governing members, a subscriber designation that requires a donation of at least $3,000 annually in exchange for access to exclusive events and travel opportunities. Many had accompanied BSO musicians on their tour. Warshawsky, who has been a governing member since 2005 along with his wife, noted that the group does not include BSO musicians, though they are in close communication.

In an emailed statement to The Baltimore Sun, BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome declined to comment on the negotiations.

“The management and Board of Directors of the BSO are committed to both sustaining artistic excellence and strengthening our business model to ensure our community, and our audiences in Baltimore, Bethesda, and the State of Maryland, are home to a world-class orchestra for many years to come,” the statement said.

Kjome has said in a previous statement that the orchestra sustained “$16 million in losses over the past ten years” and that “a careful analysis of our current financial situation” has led to the conclusion that it is “not feasible to maintain our current business model as a 52-week orchestra.”

The League of American Orchestras declined to comment on a member orchestra’s labor situation.

But “Save Our BSO” members say that the orchestra has the financial means to sustain its status and allege that management has not been transparent about its “financial condition,” specifically when it comes to the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, which gives a portion of its funds to BSO.

Committee members allege that the trust, which reported net assets of more than $95.6 million in 2016 tax filings, operates with a “self-imposed” limit on funds that go to the BSO annually. The impact “has been to starve the BSO’s operations,” the committee wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to the board.

“We believe donors intended that the Endowment Trust support the BSO, rather than starve it. … At the very least, we urge the BSO to consider relying upon the Endowment Trust as a ‘bridge’ to prevent the degradation of the orchestra while it makes adjustments to secure long-term stability for the orchestra.”

Tapping into an endowment, however, can be a risky business, said Joan Jeffri, director of the New York-based Research Center for Arts and Culture. “It’s a very short-term solution, it’s not a long-term solution,” she said. “The question would be, do they also have a longer-term financial plan to replace that money back in the endowment, or are they just saying, ‘We’re going to take it, and to hell with it.’ ”

In its letter, the committee offered to collaborate with management and share ideas on how to increase revenues and enhance programming, but with the caveat that management becomes “more transparent and demonstrates that it is committed to maintaining our great orchestra.”

Prechtl, a percussionist, said management’s most recent contract proposal, which cuts pay and reduces BSO’s scope, could radically change the stature of the institution by reducing the number of musicians that are interested in coming to and staying in Baltimore, especially compared to competing orchestras. Some BSO musicians are already taking auditions because of the proposal, said Mulligan, the first violinist.

“Musicians are very worried that we won't have the high-quality orchestra that just went to perform in Ireland” if the proposal is implemented, said Mulligan. But he added that it’s gratifying to see the efforts of Save Our BSO and “how passionate so many people are.”

“There’s a lot of concern and excitement among those people for what we’re trying to do, which is to defend the quality of the orchestra as it is and maintain it,” he said.

Still, orchestras need to remain solvent, Jeffri said, and that can make belt-tightening unavoidable. Perhaps BSO management could suggest a reduction for a set period of time, she said, with the idea of using the money saved to get on firmer financial footing, and then restore the full performance schedule and musicians’ pay.

“You do it once and you regain your footing and have a solid financial plan for the future and you haven’t lost [people’s] confidence. … Maybe it isn’t such a terrible thing, in a temporary way,” she said. “But it should have a definite timeline if you’re going to do that. Not like ‘We’re going to 40 weeks and we don’t know if ever we’re going back to 52.’ ”

As for the newly formed Save Our BSO, Jeffri applauded the effort, but suggested their energy could perhaps be put to better use. “If they’re such big heavy hitters and they’re so interested in the orchestra, maybe they should fundraise so [management] wouldn’t have to raid the endowment,” she said. “If they’re so in back of the orchestra and they’re so committed to it not taking extra weeks out and extra pay from the musicians’ pockets … would they start maybe some kind of campaign drive to help replace or raise that money?”

BSO musicians are continuing their efforts to draw attention to the orchestra’s value in the city, with a small group performance at Penn Station Dec. 21 and a benefit concert at the Baltimore Basilica at 7 p.m. Jan. 8 for the women’s shelter My Sister’s Place.

The more BSO musicians can connect with people about their cause, the better, Mulligan said. “We think the public will absolutely be on our side in our debate.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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