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Musicians play on after Baltimore Symphony Orchestra cancels concerts, shortens season because of fiscal woes

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians protest after concerts were canceled abruptly which shortened their schedule. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Citing deep fiscal problems, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Thursday abruptly canceled its summer concert series — only weeks after announcing it — and said it would move to shrink its season from 52 weeks to 40 weeks, cutting musicians' pay and vacation time.

"It is deeply disappointing to me that we are in this position," Peter Kjome, the BSO's CEO said in an interview. "We are making a decision that is necessary to preserve the Baltimore Symphony."

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The orchestra has struggled financially for years — losing more than $16 million over the past decade — but musicians had fought to keep it a year-round orchestra, arguing that to do less would demote the ensemble from "a world-class symphony into a part-time regional orchestra."

Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians' Players Committee, said the musicians were stunned by the announcement. They first heard of Kjome's plans at 1 p.m. Thursday, an hour after they had completed their final rehearsal for a scheduled concert that night.

"This is a self-destructive act that prevents us from finding a creative solution to the symphony's problems together," Mulligan said. "This defies the goodwill of the Maryland legislature, Governor Hogan and the citizens of Maryland."

Before Thursday night's concert began, the crowd gave the musicians a rare pre-performance standing ovation.

Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the BSO players, addressed the crowd as Maestra Marin Alsop faced him respectfully from the podium.

He told the crowd that musicians have been told they will not be paid after June 16. Loud boos erupted the audience.

Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the BSO players, talks about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra abruptly canceling concerts and shortening the season. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

"We are stunned and grieved on behalf of our beloved BSO," Prechtl said. "We will keep making music with passion as long as management keeps the lights on and the doors unlocked."

The orchestra received a three-minute standing ovation at intermission and a one-minute ovation before an encore by soloist Lukas Vondracek.

To protest management's announcement, the musicians added an unscheduled selection to the night's performance: Elgar's "Nimrod," a moving piece that conveys a feeling of loss.

Alsop later said in an email: "The Baltimore Symphony is a truly great orchestra. Our city deserves this wonderful asset and treasure and I hope for the best for both the BSO and Baltimore."

Thursday's bombshell news came just days after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan allowed a measure to become law without his signature that had been designed to fend off the shortened season. The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, that would award the organization an additional $3.2 million in state funding for the next two fiscal years.

But in a statement, the BSO said the organization is worried the Hogan administration might not deliver the money to the orchestra by July 1 as the legislation intended.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the money for the BSO is currently "fenced off" while the administration decides whether to release it. Under Maryland law, the governor has the discretion to decide whether to release the first half of the funding in July.

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Even so, Kjome said, the emergency funding is not enough to stem the orchestra's fiscal losses.

"Their support was greatly appreciated," he said of legislative leaders. "But when we look at our very serious financial issues, their support alone is not enough."

The BSO and the state are in discussions about an additional $1 million loan, both sides said.

"The BSO has expressed an interest in receiving a bridge loan from the state, and we are currently in active discussions," Ricci said.

McIntosh said she's hopeful Hogan will release the funding. She noted her legislation requires a task force to come up with solutions for the long-term health of the organization.

"This is something we thought we had in good faith negotiated so that they could meet payroll," McIntosh said. "I'm concerned about the BSO and many of the cultural institutions in Baltimore that have enjoyed support from the state. I'm very concerned about a retrenchment of support for cultural arts."

The Baltimore Sun obtained financial documents showing the orchestra's fiscal health is in dire straits. Even factoring in additional state funding, the orchestra is projected to barely make payroll in July and August, according to cash forecasts for a 52-week season.

For a decade, the orchestra's expenses have been greater than its revenues, Kjome said, owing to a number of factors. He said increased ticket sales, charitable donations and government grants or a larger endowment could help bolster revenues, but he argued expenses — such as nine weeks of paid vacation time for musicians — also need to be shrunk.

"We need to be able to change with changing conditions," Kjome said.

Still, many saw a shorter schedule as leading to fewer donations and ticket sales, not more.

"It's indefensible," said John Warshawsky, a BSO donor, attorney and a founding member of Save Our BSO, the group of symphony supporters formed to oppose the season reduction. "I've already corresponded with numerous supporters who just flat-out expressed no interest in continuing to support an organization that treats its programming and its musicians this way. Peter Kjome and the BSO board have surpassed my lowest expectations."

The action also cancels a slate of high-profile summer concerts that the organization had announced with some fanfare in late April. Kjome said he hopes to right the organization's fiscal health enough by next year to resume some of those events, including a popular July 4 concert in Baltimore County.

"We will return to Oregon Ridge in 2020," he pledged.

Because contract negotiations with the musicians' union are continuing — the next bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday — it was unclear whether BSO management could unilaterally shorten the season. Mulligan said the Players' Committee will discuss the situation with its attorney. The BSO musicians have been playing without a contract. The last one expired in January. What management can do legally, Mulligan said, is to lock the musicians out of the summer concerts and prohibit them from performing.

The proposal to shrink the concert year would be done mainly through fewer paid weeks during the summer, including a reduction from nine weeks to four weeks of paid vacation, orchestra management said.

Mulligan said the proposal would result in most musicians receiving about 20 percent lower pay.

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Mulligan said that musicians have received their most recent paychecks, and that the four concerts scheduled for this weekend will go on as planned.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore County Republican, said she voted for funding for the BSO in part because she hoped the organization would play more shows in Baltimore and Harford counties.

"Baltimore County has a lot of residents who enjoy the BSO," she said. "I had no idea their fiscal problems were this serious. If they're losing money every time they open the door, that's a problem. We need to see the BSO propose some solutions for how they're going to fix this structural problem going forward."

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the announcement caught him "off guard."

"I knew the institution was struggling. I did not understand the immediacy of the crisis," Ferguson said. "It's a worst-case scenario for an institution that symbolizes Baltimore's great cultural heart."

Ferguson said he hopes it's a wake-up call for Baltimoreans and those in the surrounding suburbs to support cultural institutions in the city.

"The BSO is unfortunately a canary in the coal mine for other cultural institutions in the city that are struggling amid the tumult the city is facing," Ferguson said.

He noted the good work the orchestra does in the community through its OrchKids program.

"The arts are often seen as a luxury good," he said. "I'm concerned about the long-term impacts of whether the symphony can grown by shrinking."

Before Thursday night's concert, four protesters standing in front of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall attracted the attention of the crowd. They carried signs reading "Keep the BSO world class" and "BSO Management Don't Stop the Music." Three of the four study music with BSO musicians.

Kara Poling, 17, of Baltimore said she was "devastated" by the cancellation of the summer season, especially since the BSO was poised to receive funding.

John Jay Bonstingl, 73, of Columbia was not among the protesters. He has been a subscriber for more than 35 years but said he would consider not renewing his subscription in light of the cuts.

"I'm just so absolutely, utterly disgusted," he said. "This is a slap in the face to the subscribers, to the musicians and to the whole state of Maryland."

The symphony will perform the remainder of its subscription season, which includes:

  • Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto — Thursday through Sunday.
  • Mahler Symphony No. 9 — June 7-9.
  • Movie with Orchestra: “West Side Story” — June 13-16.

The BSO said the following summer concerts will be canceled:

  • New Music Festival — June 20-22.
  • Oregon Ridge Star-Spangled Spectacular — July 3.
  • Leslie Odom Jr. — July 5.
  • “Harry Potter” film with orchestra — July 11-13.
  • BSO performance at Artscape — July 19.
  • Cirque Dances — July 26-27.

The BSO's ticket office will contact patrons with tickets to any of the summer concerts listed above within three weeks to process refunds or exchanges.

The BSO said it will resume concerts in September.

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