In response to a precipitous slide in attendance during the 2021-22 season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has canceled 10 concerts originally scheduled to be performed next season at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The schedule change will affect about 800 subscribers and will reduce the total number of BSO concerts next season from 123 to 113. Of those, 81 will be performed at the Meyerhoff and 32 will be performed at the symphony’s second home at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
By the end of last season, attendance at BSO performances was averaging about 40% of capacity in both venues, according to BSO President Mark C. Hanson. And that represented an improvement over attendance at the beginning of the season.
“Like arts groups everywhere, we’ve had ups and downs in attendance as various variants reared their ugly heads,” Hanson said. “Overall, the trajectory has been growth. But I don’t like the sight of a single empty seat.”
The revised schedule will include a new program — a regional BSO series of three concerts in an as-yet unnamed neighboring municipality, Hanson’s first significant initiative since assuming his new job in April.
The decision to essentially move three orchestra performances from the city to the suburbs worries at least one subscriber.
“It’s a little concerning that the first visible decision made by the new BSO president is to cut a significant portion of the classical concerts at the Meyerhoff,” said Luke Hall, 43, of Catonsville.
“I realize that just 10 concerts are being canceled at the Meyerhoff out of 91. And I understand that ticket sales have been challenging in a post-pandemic world,” he said. “I just hope that leadership is not just using lagging ticket sales as a way to incrementally restrict the robustness of the BSO.”
Hanson thinks attendance at BSO concerts might have been low because the symphony scheduled too many performances of the same program.
“It’s important to note that we’re not taking any unique concert programs off of the Meyerhoff schedule,” he said. “But the BSO has been performing more concerts some weeks than many of our major orchestra peers. We believe that a slight consolidation will enhance the concert experience for both audience members and the orchestra.”
Brian Prechtl, a percussionist with the orchestra and chair of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians Players’ Committee, said his members are in favor of the reduction, partly because it will lessen the risk of performer injuries.
The decision “will in no way affect the musicians’ compensation,” Prechtl said. “It will help to keep overuse injury in check while increasing the number of patrons at each performance. There’s nothing more exciting than playing for a full house.”
A recent study by WolfBrown, a California-based consulting firm that conducts market research for nonprofit cultural groups throughout the United States, says that 26% of former orchestra attendees nationwide say they’re not yet ready to resume live performances — and many of these reluctant music lovers may never return to the concert hall.
“There’s been an atrophy in demand,” researcher Alan Brown said during a June 27 filmed briefing of results tabulated by his Audience Outlook Monitor, which analyzes monthly survey responses from 660 arts groups.
“This might be the new normal,” Brown said. “I would be very reluctant to think that things are going to get much better than they have been for the last few months.”
Hanson thinks that some of those declines might be reversed if the BSO schedules more performances outside of its two official concert halls.
“We believe that many communities would be better served by our organization by bringing the music to them,” he said.
That’s the impetus behind the new concert series. Details still are being finalized, but Hanson said symphony officials are exploring possible venues.
The regional series was inspired in part by the success of the three free public Symphony in the City concerts that took place in Baltimore earlier this year. In addition, the BSO recently launched its new Music in Maryland tour, an initiative that will bring the orchestra to each of the state’s 23 counties over the next three years.
“We do believe that the future is bright,” Hanson said.
He plans to fill those now-vacant seats at the Meyerhoff on prime weekend nights by bringing different types of programming such as jazz concerts into the 39-year-old venue — both into the large concert hall, as well as alternative spaces such as the building lobby, or a small lounge that, in Hanson’s words, “would be a wonderful place for a chamber music ensemble to perform before 100 people.”
At first glance, it’s not a new strategy. For decades, the BSO has hosted outside acts on nights when the symphony wasn’t performing. Comic David Sedaris performed at the Meyerhoff in October, and Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Diana Krall appeared there in May.
But it represents a declaration of intent, a renewed effort to fill every nook and cranny of the Baltimore concert hall, even at the expense of cutting performances by the Meyerhoff’s main occupant.
Hanson’s first big “get”? Comic Amy Schumer, who earned a theater degree from Towson University, will perform at the Meyerhoff on Sept. 28.
The new focus also appears to step up the competition between two large concert halls with superb acoustics located just around the corner from each other: the 2,443-seat Meyerhoff and the 2,564-seat Lyric Baltimore.
But Hanson thinks there’s sufficient demand in Baltimore to fill both houses.
“I don’t believe that it is unhealthy for the array of national and international performers to have multiple venue options in a city like Baltimore,” he said. “This is about expanding the market and putting out the welcome mat to the Meyerhoff for community organizations. It is not an initiative that seeks to re-divide a stagnant pie.”
Jonathan Schwartz, executive director of The Lyric Foundation, thinks that Baltimore is underserved as an arts market, not oversaturated. So he’s not worried that increased competition from the Meyerhoff will cut into Lyric revenues.
“We should have more national and regional acts coming to Baltimore, not fewer,” Schwartz said.
“Someone sitting in Los Angeles thinks that if he programs an act into Philly or Washington that takes care of the mid-Atlantic market,” he said. “But when people attend a performance in Baltimore and have a positive experience, they will be more likely to send another performance at the same or a different venue.
“I’m in favor of us both being as successful as possible.”
Subscribers to the canceled concerts are being given the option of attending a different performance of the same program, and every effort is being made to assign them new seats as close as possible to their original selections, Hanson said.
Patrons who cannot or do not wish to reschedule will be reimbursed for the cost of their tickets.
“So far, I’m not aware of a single request for a refund,” Hanson said.
Despite his misgivings, Hall agreed to accept tickets to another performance. A recent transplant from Washington, he thinks the BSO is special because it “belongs to the community,” he said, and he has begun making donations to the symphony.
He thinks leadership should think long and hard about the role the BSO plays in Baltimore and how to make the symphony more relevant — perhaps by scheduling more concerts featuring women and artists and composers of color.
“I think you would see a completely different demographic of people filling those empty seats,” Hall said. ”Lagging ticket sales represents an enormous opportunity for a premier cultural institution like the BSO to look at the situation and say, ‘What can we do better?’”