Janice Chandler-Eterne and Brian Stokes Mitchell perform "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, with the orchestra and choir during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
Janice Chandler-Eterne and Brian Stokes Mitchell perform "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, with the orchestra and choir during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

On the day that but for a bitter labor dispute would have been the opening of their annual season, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and their conductor still played to large audience at a West Baltimore church.

The Rev. Harold A. Carter, the church’s pastor, welcomed the musicians, who received cheers and a standing ovation before even playing their first piece.

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“Who would have thought that the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra would be here on Monroe and Clifton?" Carter said. "It might not be the Meyerhoff [Symphony Hall] but it is New Shiloh and I don’t think it’s that bad.”

The labor dispute — which the symphony’s management calls a strike and the musicians contend is an illegal lockout — led to the postponement until next week of a season-opening free concert at the symphony hall in central Baltimore. But the event at New Shiloh was an opportunity for the musicians to demonstrate the support they have in the community.

Marin Alsop conducts the orchestra and choir during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church Sat., Sept. 14, 2019.
Marin Alsop conducts the orchestra and choir during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church Sat., Sept. 14, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

City Council President Brandon Scott was seated in the front row wearing a lapel pin in support of the musicians, and in a brief speech ranked the orchestra as a Baltimore asset alongside the Ravens, the Orioles and the city’s food. Without offering specifics, Scott said the city had to play a role in guaranteeing the 103-year-old orchestra’s future.

“We know in a great city like Baltimore we have to hold onto what we have in order for us to progress,” said Scott. “We have to do everything we can to hold on to these musicians and to hold on to our orchestra.”

The negotiations between the union and the symphony’s management are over pay, season length and working conditions, but a bargaining session this week failed to secure a resolution. The union filed a complaint with the federal labor board alleging that management is not bargaining in good faith. The symphony’s CEO has said managers have given the musicians options for ending the dispute.

The labor dispute comes amid revelations of the orchestra’s shaky finances, which auditors said might not hold for another a year. A task force began meeting in August to tackle the problem, but its work has been stymied by the uncertainty created by the labor dispute.

Baltimore Symphony Musicians perform during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
Baltimore Symphony Musicians perform during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony at New Shiloh Baptist Church. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Symphony Musicians Player Committee committee co-chair Brian Prechtl, a percussionist, told the audience Saturday afternoon that the orchestra was “under threat” but guaranteed that people in Baltimore would continue to hear it play for a second century.

“We’ve been out there walking the picket line. It’s been tough for us,” Prechtl said. “But we’re still standing. We’re standing up to defend this amazing orchestra because it is under threat right now. We’ve lifted our voices to all that will hear. Often we felt like we were shouting into an abyss but we persist because we know what we have is worth fighting for.”

His speech prompted cheers and another standing ovation.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, spoke in a recorded video message, praising OrchKids, a program for city school students.

The symphony musicians were conducted by music director Marin Alsop and joined at New Shiloh by the Carter Legacy Singers, soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme and Tony Award-winning bass baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell. They performed a program a little more than an hour long that spanned classical, jazz and Broadway pieces.

In addition to Saturday’s season opener, three “Star Wars”-themed concerts scheduled for the coming week have been postponed until some time next year.

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