The BSO and its musicians reach an agreement on a new one-year contract.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just bought itself a year. Now the real struggle begins.
Less than two weeks ago, the BSO announced with trumpet fanfare from the stage of Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that it had obtained the money it needed to sign a one-year collective bargaining agreement with the musicians’ union, ending a 14-week work stoppage and launching the 2019-2020 season.
But the symphony’s structural deficits haven’t gone away. No one — not the BSO’s musicians, administrators or board of directors — thinks that this one-time infusion of cash is anything other than a temporary fix.
“Our work is just starting,” said Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians Players Committee.
“This isn’t a salve that’s going to make everything better. There really needs to be a sea change in how we operate. If we keep doing everything exactly the same way we’ve always done it, we’ll end up in exactly the same place we were in before.”
Year after year, the symphony has spent more money than it brought in, incurring about $16 million in deficits during the past decade, according to Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO.
”It’s vital that we expand our family of audience members and donors,” Kjome said. “In addition, as we look to the future, it’s important that we not only grow our revenue but carefully manage our costs.”
Some observers blame the ongoing deficits on lackluster fundraising. Others say the culprit is ticket sales that fill only about three-quarters of the seats in the orchestra’s two performing halls in Baltimore and North Bethesda. Others contend that the BSO has overlooked potential new revenue sources and opportunities to connect with the public. Still others argue that the orchestra has frittered away money on luxuries, such as guest artist fees and its centennial celebration.
”They’re going to have to take a good, hard look at how they’ve been spending," said Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Players Committee.
“There are costs that could be cut that don‘t involve musician salaries. Every year, they have overspent on something different. ... Their priority should be raising enough money each and every year to support a full-time orchestra.”
Over the summer, the situation became so dire that the symphony ran out of cash. On June 16, the board of directors voted to lock the musicians out of the Meyerhoff, depriving them of their salaries for the summer. In July, an audit of the BSO concluded that the organization might lack the economic resources necessary to remain in business for another 12 months.
Two committees have been charged with fixing what’s broken — but they have less than a year to do it. The new collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 7, 2020.
“And we have to do it well before Labor Day. I have no interest in getting to the edge of another cliff. But to achieve that, we are going to have to find a sustainable source of income.”
Last spring, the Maryland General Assembly created a work group on the BSO’s finances, led by former state Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Democrat who was chairman of the Senate’s budget committee. The BSO work group originally had a deadline of Oct. 1 to come up with recommendations for containing costs and developing new audience members. But the group included representatives from both sides of the bitter labor dispute and made little progress during the work stoppage.
“There really needs to be a sea change in how we operate."
Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians Players Committee
Share quote & link
Kasemeyer expects that to change now that the players are back on stage. The work group’s second meeting is scheduled for Oct. 16; he hopes to come up with a plan for putting the BSO on stable financial footing by mid-March, when the legislature will be fine-tuning the state’s 2020-2021 budget.
”Our success depends on whether all the participants, and in particular the BSO board of directors, are willing to come to grips with maintaining some kind of financial stability so that these work stoppages and the need for constant emergency funding don’t occur,” Kasemeyer said.
Rosen thinks a few years of bridge funding might be necessary to keep the orchestra afloat. Neither he nor Kasemeyer has given up hope of persuading the Republican governor to eventually release that $3.2 million authorized by the General Assembly — assuming the BSO can prove those funds won’t be used by the orchestra to live beyond its means, but instead to secure its future.
“It is imperative,” Kasemeyer said, “that the work group come up with a plan that demonstrates to the legislature and the governor that the BSO can be restored to financial solvency.
"Predictability is the key, and that’s what we don’t have right now. The legislature has to know that we won’t come back every year asking for emergency funding. They have to have faith that we’ll do what we say we’re going to do.”
He hopes the orchestra will prove its statewide relevance — and attract new donors — by mounting concerts outside its two performing halls.
“I’d like to see the orchestra get out and about,” Kasemeyer said. “I’d like to see them performing in Hagerstown and Ocean City. I’d like to see them demonstrate an ability to attract people who haven’t been to the symphony before.”
Kjome said he’s wished for some time that the BSO had sufficient funds to produce more concerts statewide.
“Our interest in performing throughout Maryland remains strong,” he wrote in an email. “We are very interested in returning to Frederick, for example. Securing the funds to make it financially feasible has been the challenge, though we’re still committed to making that work.”
The work group’s mission overlaps in part with that of the Vision Committee, a new branch of the BSO’s board created as part of the collective bargaining agreement. Significantly, committee members will include musicians and community representatives.
The Vision Committee will plan for the orchestra’s future, including recommending projects that could generate income. That committee hasn’t met yet; its members still are being appointed. But Rosen is optimistic that the collaboration will yield results.
It was the musicians, for example, who this summer began exploring the possibility of performing concerts in such nontraditional venues as Camden Yards and MECU Pavilion — venues that could potentially introduce the orchestra to new audience members. Spokesmen for both organizations have confirmed they were approached by a representative for the union and would welcome a chance to host the orchestra. (A BSO spokesperson said that organization staff has been discussing a possible concert at Camden Yards since the spring, and for the past year has been looking into returning to MECU, where the orchestra has performed frequently since 1981.)
In addition, the BSO’s new contract will allow the organization for the first time to enter into a potential new money-making venture by live-streaming concerts over the internet and broadcasting them over the radio — as orchestras elsewhere have been doing for years.
“There were antiquated aspects of the old collective bargaining agreement that actually inhibited us from promoting our wonderful music," Rosen said.
"We have to recognize that there are other ways of getting the music out to members of our audience who aren’t in symphony hall. It’s a very new and exciting area for us.”
Right now, the BSO’s leaders are emphasizing revenue growth. Neither Rosen nor Kjome is eager to discuss the other side of the equation: cutting costs.
Attempting to trim the budget is a risky proposition. The BSO’s largest expense is employee salaries, as it is for nearly all businesses. But demanding pay cuts from the performers could result in renewed labor strife.
Kjome and Rosen say the days of deficit spending are over.
”Expenses have to be looked at and matched to our revenue,” Rosen said. “We’ll have to look at our expenses on all levels, and obviously, salaries is one of them.
“But, I do think that the solution is more philanthropic support and more ticket sales.”
According to a BSO tax document, Peter Kjome was paid a salary of $235,083 for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2018, and Marin Alsop was paid $901,732. During that same period, the musicians received a base salary of $82,742. (It’s slightly less now.)
Alsop wrote in an email — and Kjome confirmed — that she has voluntarily given back nearly $600,000 to the orchestra since she became music director in 2007.
She said that when she learned last fall that the symphony was proposing to reduce the number of weeks for which the performers were paid, “I immediately said that I would take whatever cut the musicians took,” Alsop wrote. “This year, my weeks and salary have been reduced by almost 30% and that’s after a prior 20% reduction.”
Balancing the budget without ending up in another labor dispute will be no easy feat. It will take creativity and nerve and, perhaps, luck. But those involved say they’re committed to working hard and figuring it out.
”We can’t rest for a moment,” Prechtl said. “This is no job for wimps.