The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Tuesday that it has been promised pivotal gifts totaling $7.25 million that officials say will allow the beleaguered organization to pay its outstanding bills, balance its budget this season for the first time in a decade — and start implementing a plan to stabilize its finances.
Since early December, a group of more than a dozen local philanthropists have pledged $6 million for the symphony’s $28 million operating budget, plus an additional $1.25 million to bolster the $60 million endowment.
“This extra money helps us get to sustainability,” said Michael Kaiser, a consultant hired by the orchestra to fix its finances. “We will balance our budget this year, and I plan on balancing our budget every year from now on.
“This money is so critical to getting us started so we can start looking forward instead of always looking back.”
Barry Rosen, chairman of the BSO’s board of directors, said that the organization reached out to local donors in early December. Symphony leaders told philanthropists in the Baltimore area and Montgomery County they needed to raise $3 million by the end of January and another $3 million by the end of May to buttress the organization sufficiently so it could begin building its future.
“We got the whole $6 million before the month was up," Rosen said. "It was really quite heartening.”
Kaiser said the windfall will enable the orchestra to pay millions of dollars owed to its suppliers, avoid dipping into next season’s subscription revenues to pay this year’s expenses, expand marketing efforts and invest in artistic programming with the potential to attract new revenue sources.
The infusion of cash comes at a critical time, though symphony officials warned that even with these gifts, the orchestra is not yet out of danger.
A work group created by the Maryland General Assembly must present a plan in February for stanching the $16 million in losses incurred by the symphony during the past decade, which left it with little cash or reserves. Last summer, the cash shortage became so severe that the musicians were locked out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for 12 weeks during a bitter labor dispute. An audit released in July concluded that the organization might lack the financial resources to remain in business for another year.
“The donations we have just received are a vital and necessary step,” Rosen said. "But they are just a first step.
“We have to address the cause of our cash problems. To achieve successive years of balanced budgets, we’ll need an increase in annual contributions. Eventually, we’ll need an increase in our endowment. We’ll need to spend our money wisely. And we’re going to need governmental help.”
But last July, Gov. Larry Hogan refused to release the first year’s distribution of $1.6 million, warning that Maryland could soon face a projected deficit of $961 million. The fate of the second, $1.6 million installment has yet to be determined.
Details of what BSO officials hope will be a five-year plan endorsed by the work group are expected to be finalized by early February. But even if the plan is adopted and succeeds, it could take years to produce results. Rosen said he anticipates that the symphony will ask the work group to recommend that the legislature approve “some form of bridge funding" through 2025.
Because the next few months will be so crucial for the BSO, the $7.25 million in donations raised in December — a larger sum than even Kaiser had dared hope — has provided a welcome morale boost.
“It’s always been my intention to raise a chunk of money,” Kaiser said. “But to be honest, I didn’t think we’d raise this much this quickly.”
Brian Prechtl, chairman of the BSO Musicians Players Committee, said that the past month has been “a watershed moment" for the musicians.
“We learned this summer that a lot of people really love the BSO," he said. “But we weren’t sure if they would come up with enough money to keep us going. To see people step forward with substantial contributions has been galvanizing for all of us.”
The $7.25 million was donated by philanthropists Michael and Patricia Batza, Rick Berndt, Barbara and Thomas Bozzuto, George and Anne Bunting, Mary Catherine Bunting, Sandra Levi Gerstung, Patricia and Mark Joseph, Earl and Darielle Linehan, Robert Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, Judy and Scott Phares, Arnie and Alison Richman, Barry and Susan Rosen, Bruce Rosenblum and Lori Laitman, and George and Betsy Sherman and by The Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds.
Peter Kjome, the symphony’s president and CEO, said that the donations will be instrumental in helping the symphony reach a multi-year contract with its performers before the current bargaining agreement expires Sept. 7.
“In the months ahead, we’ll begin conversations about a new multi-year agreement that will give us a strong foundation for the future,” Kjome said.
One brick in that foundation will be laid Wednesday, when the symphony performs the first of its new Symphony in the City series of four free concerts at venues in different Baltimore neighborhoods. The series, which is being underwritten by PNC Bank, will feature the music of Ludwig van Beethoven at Morgan State University, the New Psalmist Baptist Church and Patterson Park.