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Baltimore Symphony Orchestra rebukes flutist over social posts pushing conspiracy theories on vaccines, election

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra issued a public rebuke over the weekend to its principal flutist over her social media posts that push conspiracy theories about topics such as the coronavirus and election fraud.

The orchestra announced Saturday on its social media accounts that it wanted to acknowledge the posts by principal flutist Emily Skala, which have questioned the safety of the coronavirus vaccine, the efficacy of face masks and the authenticity of the presidential election results.

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“While we do not comment on internal personnel matters, we also do not condone nor support the words or sentiments expressed in these posts,” orchestra officials wrote. “Ms. Skala does not speak for the BSO, nor do her statements reflect our core values or code of conduct grounded in humanity and respect.”

The orchestra, the institution that receives the greatest share of Maryland’s arts funding, issued its statement after social media users drew attention to Skala’s public posts by tagging the BSO and messaging its account, BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome said in a statement.

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“The BSO-musician relationship is different from that of a typical employer-employee; and, we have been partnering with our musician representatives to great success and will continue to do so in our recommitment to the critical work of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Kjome said.

Emily Skala of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays the flute during a lunch break in a file photo from 2010.
Emily Skala of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays the flute during a lunch break in a file photo from 2010. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

He said the organization would not comment on any potential disciplinary action stemming from the posts, as it was a personnel matter.

Reached by phone, Skala said her posts were not intended to offend.

“My posts are anti-narrative, anti-mainstream media and it’s causing cognitive dissonance. That’s what makes people angry,” she said.

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She wrote on Facebook that the coronavirus was “created in a lab at UNC — yes, in North Carolina — and sold to a lab in Wuhan, China and then planted in the marketplace 300 yards away.” She shared a link that called the use of face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 a “sinister fraud,” and an image claiming that coronavirus vaccines are an attempt at “genetic manipulation.”

Facebook has flagged her posts for containing false information. Face masks are proved to help stop the spread of the virus, the federally approved messenger RNA vaccines cannot alter a person’s genetic code, and the theory that the virus was created in North Carolina, promoted by far-right media outlets like One America News Network, is unfounded.

“My heart breaks after having learned yesterday that ‘some patrons and donors have complained’ about my posts on [Facebook], having interpreted them as ‘hate speech,’” she wrote online last month.

As of Monday afternoon, the BSO’s Facebook post had drawn about 570 comments.

Another volley of responses followed in a Twitter thread Saturday. Baltimore opera singer Melissa Wimbish posted emails Skala sent last July, after members of the orchestra met via Zoom to discuss protests in Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement; Wimbish, who is not a BSO member, said musicians had shared the messages with her.

In the emails, Skala questions those who criticize the BSO for not reflecting the diversity of the city. “Our color palette is acoustical, not visual,” she writes. Commenters online have objected to the language she used to describe the mission of the OrchKids music education program: “In order to one day see more black musicians in orchestras, they need to be trained to love Classical music from an early age.”

In the emails, Skala writes that she thinks the orchestra as a whole feels “just as badly treated” as Black musicians, who had expressed concerns about discrimination. Skala writes that she worries that the BSO stating support for the Black Lives Matter movement would be too “political,” adding that she thinks the organization is part of a conspiracy led by powerful Democrats and supported by George Soros.

Skala said her views are not racist or anti-Semitic. She confirmed the authenticity of the emails and said they were intended for her fellow musicians, not the public.

Of the emails posted, Kjome called them “private” and in an email said, “Please note this Summer 2020 Zoom meeting was not a meeting organized or sanctioned by the BSO, and we will not be commenting further.”

Mary C. Plaine, secretary-treasurer of the Musicians’ Association of Metropolitan Baltimore Local 40-543, said the union’s collective bargaining agreement does not address free speech rights or the ability to post on social media.

“It is an employer’s role, not a union’s, to make determinations in personnel matters,” Plaine said in an email. “The union’s role — its legal duty — is to ensure that the employees, in this case, the musicians, receive due process and other protections outlined under the collective bargaining agreement.”

The BSO has drawn criticism for its lack of diversity. A Baltimore Sun report in December found one Black musician on the orchestra roster of 75, the cellist Esther Mellon.

Anthony Parker, a Black Baltimore-based rapper also known as Wordsmith, joined the BSO in September as an artistic partner who would also help diversity efforts within the organization. He said Skala was always kind to him and receptive to his ideas but frequently peddled conspiracy theories.

It seemed as if she had fallen down a “rabbit hole,” Parker said, propelled by misinformation she read online.

Even so, when Parker talked with her about his nonprofit, Rise with a Purpose Inc. — which works to provide music education to underserved students in Baltimore City — Skala volunteered to work as a teacher for the program.

“When I brought this up to Emily she was one of my first, I would say, big supporters on being a part of it and wanting to help,” Parker said. “She’s definitely a kindhearted person. I don’t want that to get lost in all of this.”

But Parker said Skala ought to face consequences for her remarks, whether she is suspended and returns on the condition that discriminatory or false comments stop, or removed altogether.

“A statement isn’t good enough,” Parker said. “For the people that felt that they were troubled by all the things she’s been saying, they have to feel comfortable going back and supporting the BSO knowing Emily would still be there or not being there.”

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Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Condon, Mary Carole McCauley and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

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