BSO and musicians in marathon contract negotiations as deadline looms

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians walk the picket line outside the Meyerhoff in late June.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its 77 musicians are in marathon contract negotiations in the hopes of reaching an agreement that would allow players to return to work Wednesday to rehearse for a season-opening concert.

A 12-hour negotiating session on Friday represented the first apparent sign of progress since June 17, when the performers were locked out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 18 days after management abruptly canceled the summer season.


“We expect talks to continue,” Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the BSO Players’ Committee, said Friday. “We continue to work towards preserving the orchestra it has taken 103 years to build.”

The BSO and its musicians released statements Saturday that were worded identically, a sign the two sides are attempting to reach an agreement.


The statements read:

“Federal mediators are assisting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, its musicians, and the Musicians’ Association of Metropolitan Baltimore in collective bargaining. The mediators have asked the parties to continue the ongoing negotiations and take no action through Monday, September 9 as bargaining continues.”

Music lovers have worried all summer that the BSO — by far the largest arts group in Maryland — might not be around to celebrate its 104th birthday.

On May 30, the symphony canceled its summer slate of concerts just five weeks after announcing the warm-weather lineup, including a New Music Festival which was to have focused on female composers.

Then in June, the BSO’s board of directors voted to impose the lockout, citing $16 million in losses during the past decade, and giving the musicians little notice they would lose their paychecks until September.

The crisis escalated in July, when an audit of the BSO’s finances reached the conclusion there was “substantial doubt” that the orchestra had sufficient financial resources to remain in business for another year. And Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced he would not release $1.6 million in state aid the General Assembly had approved.

The stakes are enormous, not just for the symphony but for the surrounding neighborhoods, city and state. According to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, the BSO has an economic impact in Maryland of slightly more than $30 million a year.

The BSO supports the equivalent of 980 jobs statewide, the advocacy group found. The organization generates an estimated $27 million annually in salaries and other forms of household income and about $3.2 million each year in state and local tax revenues.


So the possibility that the symphony might fold — as the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera Company did in 2008 — alarms city boosters.

“The BSO is one of Baltimore’s major league teams,” said Greg Bader, vice president of communications and marketing for the Baltimore Orioles.

“Just like the Orioles and the Ravens, the BSO is one of the businesses driving tourism and the economy. We hope a way can be found for the symphony to continue operating.”

Among those who has been watching the negotiations with increasing concern is Volker Stewart, owner of The Brewer’s Art, the restaurant and brewery located on North Charles Street a short walk from the Meyerhoff.

“If the BSO were to start canceling concerts, that would have a very big impact on our business,” he said. He estimated that on nights when the symphony is performing, half his revenues comes from pre-show diners and classical music lovers who stop by the bar post-encore for a nightcap.

Moreover, concert patrons make dinner reservations early, providing his business with a welcome infusion of predictability.


“This summer has been a little slower than normal,” Stewart said, “but it hasn’t had nearly the impact that it will if they start canceling concerts this fall."

If worse comes to worst and Meyerhoff Hall goes dark, “we should be able to recover some of that business,” he said, "but it’s hard to know for sure.”

The lockout could be interpreted as an attempt by management to implement its most controversial demand: a proposal to shorten the season from 52 weeks to 40, accompanied by a roughly 20 percent pay cut for performers.

The BSO has been a 52-week orchestra since 1984, a point of considerable pride for the players. Michael Hayes, who teaches labor law at the University of Baltimore where he is an associate professor, thinks the uncertainty over the symphony’s fate has also touched a nerve among Baltimoreans struggling to restore the city’s lost luster.

“People don’t want to reduce their expectations for the symphony or for Baltimore,” he said.

“We’ve got all these murders going on and we’re asking for 750 additional police officers. We don’t want to think of ourselves as a second-class city, a city that doesn’t really have much of anything to offer.”


Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, has said the lockout will be lifted for the week starting Monday. But the musicians’ first work obligation isn’t until 10 a.m. Wednesday, when rehearsals begin for a free season-preview concert scheduled to be performed next Saturday.

The agreement that “no action” will be taken through Monday seemed to indicate that neither side would ratchet up the hostilities, from picketing outside the Meyerhoff to filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to voting whether to continue a work stoppage.

Hayes said such restraint, when coupled with a more speedy negotiating pace, sometimes signals that an agreement is near.

“These late negotiating sessions are very, very important,” he said.

Before Friday’s long session, two weeks or more occasionally elapsed between bargaining talks. When both sides did meet, negotiations lasted no more than a few hours.

Afterwords, Kjome and the players would issue news releases stating that no progress had been made. These releases often included statements designed to win public support by portraying the other side in a negative light though the rhetoric never reached the inflammatory levels that has sometimes characterized labor disputes in other industries.


In contrast, Friday’s daylong meeting was immediately followed by an announcement that bargaining would continue over the next few days.

Hayes said both sides have powerful motivations for making a deal.

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“If they don’t reach an agreement, there’s going to be pain on both sides for the first time,” he said.

“Until now, the lockout has been less risky for management from a financial standpoint. But the risk is increasing. If they don’t have a contract this week, they’re going to have to start canceling concerts.

“For the musicians, it gets harder and harder every day that they aren’t getting paid."

If management and the players succeed in finding common ground, a meeting would be scheduled with the full membership to go over details of a proposed contract, according to Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Players Committee. The musicians would have time to study the draft before voting whether to accept or reject it.


“Typically, the voting would occur the next day,” Mulligan wrote in a Sept. 4 email.

Hayes thinks there’s room for hope. He noted that though the practical problems confronting the performers and management are different, they share the same goal.

“Both sides seem to want to be putting on concerts,” he said. “I gotta believe there’s some room for compromise.”