Musicians accept pay cut to help struggling BSO

Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have agreed to take yet another salary hit in an effort to help the organization weather the continued effects of the recession. The players accepted a freeze for the 2010-11 season and a 16.6 percent reduction for the two seasons after that. By the 2012-2013 season, base pay for BSO members will be $67,600 -- essentially the same as it was in 2001.

"We're devastated," said Jane Marvine, an English horn player and spokesperson for the Players' Committee. "In the last decade, two times we had great contracts that were unfulfilled. This sets us back a decade. We have everything going for us. The talent is on the stage and in the [administration]. We have a music director committed to expanding the orchestra as a resource for the community. We have a collaborative spirit. So it seems impossible to us that we have not been able to thrive as a major American orchestra in one of the wealthiest states."

The new agreement follows a series of salary and benefit concessions made by the players in 2009, when the orchestra was facing financial pressures, including a drop in the value of the endowment fund. After two balanced budgets, the 2008-09 season ended with a deficit of $5.6 million. That was covered by cash reserves, so the BSO is not carrying accumulated debt as it in the past decade, when the debt totaled more than $20 million. Endowment funds were used to retire that debt and provide the cash reserves that have now been depleted. The endowment fund reached a low of $32.5 million last year, too low for the orchestra to take its annual draw (that caused about half of last year's deficit). The endowment is no valued around $45 million.

Under terms of the new contract, musicians will contribute to health care premiums and be responsible for deductible payments that previously were paid by the organization.

BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham said that the "economic climate and recession proved much more prolonged than we had all hoped. There has been a reduction in state, city, corporate and foundation and it is not likely to return anytime soon. Baltimore City just announced a 50 percent cut in its grant. It reached $750,000 a few years ago, was cut to $480,000 and now to $241,000. That's money we now have to find elsewhere," Meecham said.

The orchestra's annual budget was $27.5 for the last fiscal year, $24.7 million for the current one; next year's total will be $23.7 million. A balanced budget for the current 2009-2010 is projected.

"We have no debt, and that's the way it's going to stay," Meecham said. "It's tough love, but we can't repeat history and expect the community to rally around us again."

Morale in the orchestra has taken a hit during the months of negotiations leading up to the agreement announced Thursday. There are concerns about retaining musicians, given the salary drop. But the deal does retain the BSO's full-time, 52-week status, a point of honor for the players, which is one of only 17 American orchestras with that status.

"We love what we do and what we have," Marvine said. "There have been a lot of broken promises, but there is no reason why this orchestra can't succeed here."

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