The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is preparing for what may be its toughest gig to date -- reinventing itself.
Like many other American orchestras, the BSO has faced rising costs and deficits, declining income, aging and dwindling audiences. Total concert attendance has fallen about 10 percent during the past decade. In an effort to reverse those trends, musicians, management, board members and volunteers are joined in an unusual collaborative effort aimed at developing what could become a new BSO.
It won't necessarily be a radical transformation, but more of a change in focus and attitudes. It's about generating a concerted effort to strengthen ties to the community and build a larger, more committed, even more pampered audience base. It's about making an old institution that performs a lot of old music into a more relevant part of contemporary Baltimore life.
"If there was a quick, obvious fix to the orchestra's problems, we would do it," says BSO president John Gidwitz. "There is no silver bullet, no instant transformation." Instead, expect incremental steps within the next few years.
Patrons almost certainly will encounter newly formatted concert series, classical and pops, aimed at attracting fresh audiences and reinvigorating current patrons. Expanded Internet activity is also likely -- upgrades for the BSO's Web site, maybe chat rooms for instant performance feedback and program notes delivered electronically in advance to ticket-holders.
You might also see musicians eschewing white tie and tails for some of those new series, as they currently do for select concerts. No, you won't find music director Yuri Temirkanov sporting casual dress onstage, leading a program of orchestral hip-hop at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The Russian conductor, whose concerts continue to be strong sellers every season, will not abandon his very traditional approach to the presentation of classical music.
"Nothing needs fixing with a Temirkanov concert," says Gregory Tucker, the BSO's vice president of public relations.
Adds Gidwitz: "Temirkanov is the greatest exponent we could hope to have for traditional concerts. He'd be my first pick to conduct all those concerts for a long time to come. More cutting-edge programs will be conducted by others."
Temirkanov has not been a key player in the discussions about the organization's future, but has been kept apprised of developments. His attitude about the planning discussions is the same attitude he took when staffers first proposed the BSO's "Symphony With a Twist" series a few season ago, a series organized around specific themes, drawing from the familiar and offbeat repertoire, and featuring lots of chat by each conductor.
"Temirkanov said that if he could be assured it would be a quality series, not a circus or another pops program, we should give it a go," Gidwitz says. That series did turn out to be serious -- and successful -- and has provided a useful model for future programming concepts.
Although there are few specifics at this point, it's clear, judging by the current mood at the Meyerhoff, that there will be a lot more to the future BSO than Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, a lot of alternatives to business as usual.
"Little inconsequential adjustments around the edges will not do it," says Gidwitz, who will retire at the end of this season. "We need to take some fairly dramatic steps in transforming the way we package the music, the way we present ourselves." Adds Jane Marvine, the BSO's English horn player and head of the players' committee: "If things change too much, you could detract from the basic musical quality. And if you don't change enough, you may find yourself becoming extinct."
'Guests at a party'
The transformation process has been going on for some time. You can get a taste of this -- literally -- at almost any BSO event. Once trotted out only for certain targeted audiences or annual summer festivals, cocktail bars and food concession stands are now routinely set up in the Meyerhoff lobby before performances.
"It's a good idea," says violinist Ellen Pendleton Troyer. "There's nothing worse than listening to a concert with your stomach rumbling. And having the food and drink is a facilitator for social interaction."
"We want people to have a good experience in the hall before a concert, not just at the concert," says Douglas R. Mann, BSO vice president and chief financial officer. "We want to provide them with a reason to come earlier. So we offer good food and drink, maybe some music playing in the lobby. And we're looking at improving the design of our lobby to increase seating and counter space. Basically, we want to make people feel they are guests at a party being thrown in their honor."
Even latecomers are being welcomed more warmly than ever. Responding to requests from tardy types who said they didn't like to feel they were being punished, the BSO now provides a video and audio feed in the lobby so they can follow what they're missing until they can be allowed inside at an appropriate break in the performance.
With all those good times out in the lobby, will the activity inside the hall become less important? "We're not saying that sushi and tapas bars are the future of classical music," says Tucker. "But we want a BSO concert at the Meyerhoff to be a destination, the place to be."
'Latex and leather?'
Once welcomed (possibly by a new team of designated "greeters," one idea under consideration), and also sufficiently sated and quenched in the lobby, patrons may also find new things onstage in the future. Already, orchestra members dispense with white tie for the "Symphony With a Twist" series. Should they go the informal route more often?
"The orchestra of 1916 looks pretty much the same as the orchestra of 2003," says bassist Hampton Childress. "A segment of the public likes that; another segment is intimidated by it. We're not necessarily advocating that we drop white tie, but maybe we should consider other types of distinctive dress."
Even if the BSO never does switch to performing everything in Friday casual or hip black T-shirts -- "Maybe latex and leather?" Troyer says with a laugh -- the mere fact that attire is being discussed reflects how broad the self-analysis is at the BSO these days.
"We have to look at absolutely everything we do," Troyer says. "What does a 21st-century audience want from an orchestra, and are we giving it to them?"
To try answering such questions, ad hoc committees have been meeting for two years to exchange ideas within the BSO. Some of these brainstorming sessions have been daylong affairs, some of them off-site, away from Meyerhoff Hall to avoid distraction. "This isn't a phase we're going through," Tucker says. "There's no going back. There's no way we won't be working in a cooperative way from now on."
The meetings have become increasingly focused and intense this season. The first major report on the discussions is due to be presented to the board of directors this month. This proposed new business plan for the orchestra will incorporate many of the suggestions made from all sides and provide a new starting point for still more discussion in the months ahead.
Among the proposals: A new concert series aimed at giving audiences a deeper perspective on the music being played, with a look at the historic context of when it was written; and a new pops series geared specifically to the baby boom generation.
"I also can imagine at least one more classical series that is different from our Celebrity and Favorites series," Gidwitz says. "And we may change the Celebrity and Favorites series; they've been around a long time. You can get into a pattern that becomes tradition and then routine."
Any new concert series will probably not be introduced before the 2005-2006 season, at the earliest. "They have to be designed and tested," Gidwitz says. That season is also when the BSO gains a second home in the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County. The prospect of that new venue and its new audiences "has caused us to rethink and revitalize what we do in Baltimore," Marvine says.
While new musical products are being formulated, other ideas, especially those of the audience-friendly type, are likely to be implemented sooner. These include an expanded, upgraded, more "customer-centric" Web site, which already generates about $500,000 in ticket sales annually. Users may soon be greeted online with the same sort of personal touch provided on commercial sites that keep track of buying habits and make recommendations for future purchases.
A kiosk in the Meyerhoff lobby, providing instant access to the Web site, is another possibility. Down the road, a post-concert Internet chat room and program notes on CD-ROM may be introduced.
Also under discussion: How to develop more loyalty and a sense of ownership among concertgoers, possibly by trying the kinds of strategies that
led grocery and drugstore chains to introduce discount cards.
Stark statistics are driving all the soul-searching at the BSO. There has been about a two-percent decline in average attendance for concerts each year for the past decade. During the 1992-93 season, that average was about 77 percent of capacity in the 2,438-seat Meyerhoff Hall. An average capacity of 67 percent during the 2002-03 season meant that the BSO played for a troubling number of empty seats. So far, this season has not seen a significant improvement on that average.
(Data from the American Symphony Orchestra League indicate that only four of the country's 23 largest orchestras registered gains in attendance between 1991 and 2002; 14 of them, including those in Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, saw much steeper drops than the BSO. The median decline was 12 percent.)
For many years, orchestras nationwide have been affected by a significant change in the public's buying habits. There has been a move away from purchasing full-season subscriptions well in advance (which assured strong cash flow and a known audience base) and toward choosing smaller subscriptions or single tickets bought close to the event time. All of this affects the bottom line.
Orchestras need contributions to supplement ticket sales (ticket income accounts for half or less of an annual budget). But contributions have been sluggish in most communities across the country.
"Until about 1991, people were giving big time to the arts," says Greta Estey, BSO vice president of development. "Now they're stretching pledges to larger time periods. And donors want to be appreciated. We have to personalize the $10 donor as well as the donor capable of making a larger gift."
The BSO saw the end of balanced budgets when the 2001-02 fiscal year posted the first deficit in six years -- $661,000 on an annual operating budget of $25.4 million. Preliminary audit figures for the 2002-03 fiscal year indicate that about $550,000 more was added to the debt (the annual budget that year was $24.6 million). A much larger deficit -- $1.5 million -- is projected by the end of the 2003-2004 season, which has a $25.5 million operating budget. This would bring the accumulated debt to $2.7 million.
In a symbolic act, the board of directors refused to approve this year's deficit budget.
Deferred pay raises
There is some upbeat financial news, though. The orchestra's endowment, which went from a high of $78 million in 2000 to a low of $56 million in 2002, has benefited from the stock market's rebound and was worth $73 million in mid-December. (Approximately 5 percent of the endowment is withdrawn annually and applied to the orchestra's annual budget.)
But even with a healthy endowment, an orchestra carrying accumulated debts will eventually be forced to take drastic action if there isn't a steep rise in earned and / or contributed income. The largest financial burden borne by an orchestra is its personnel expenses. Salaries and benefits for musicians represent about 40 percent of the BSO's annual budget, more than $10 million. Administrative personnel expenses account for another 23 percent. Any savings on these expenses could make a substantial difference to the debt situation.
As with most businesses today, the perennially rising costs of health benefits are particularly draining. It seems inevitable that the players will be asked to make concessions on health-care costs at some point, and perhaps to accept other money-saving measures. Such requests could prove highly divisive.
Last spring, the musicians agreed to defer contractually scheduled pay raises until 2005, a move that will save the orchestra about $2 million.
"Unfortunately, the steps we have taken so far, as drastic as they have been, haven't gotten the deficit to zero," Marvine of the players' committee says. "We hope we can achieve solutions without asking musicians to make further contributions out of their pocketbooks. We are as committed as the board is to reining in the deficits. To the board's credit, they're engaging us in the process of finding ways to address the problems."
For the time being, though, all parties appear to be in sync as they analyze the myriad other things the BSO might do to ease budgetary pressures. "The musicians aren't saying, 'It's management's problem, you fix it,' " Tucker says. "They see this as much their responsibility as ours."
Erasing the distance
All of the internal discussions start from one commonly accepted tenet -- the artistic quality of the BSO. It has risen steadily since the 1970s and has received an internationally ratified boost under the honing of Temirkanov since 2000. The primary focus of the current internal scrutiny is to entice more people to appreciate that quality on a regular basis, yielding consistently larger audiences and more generous donors.
"We're looking at the whole product," says Karen Swanson, BSO vice president and general manager. "What kind of experience do we present to the audience, from the time they call in to buy tickets to their walk from the parking garage and their arrival in the lobby to the time they leave? How do we speak [the public's] language instead of always assuming they speak ours? Is the whole experience warm, inviting and accessible?"
Musicians are determined to provide some of that warmth and accessibility. "We want to speak to the audience in a different way," Childress says. Some of that speaking will come from the stage, as when concertmaster Jonathan Carney gave a cheery introduction of new BSO members at the start of the season or when Childress delivered thanks to a generous patron. The players are also considering ways to mingle informally with concertgoers before and / or after a performance.
As the musicians themselves take on more of a verbal role from time to time, they help erase the perceived distance between stage and audience. "We're looking at breaking down barriers," Marvine says. "We feel a certain frustration about not connecting with the audience as much as we could. Do they see us as untouchables, or people they can relate to? How can we make them feel that what we do is for them?"
"And with them," adds Childress.
The role of the musicians as spokespersons for the BSO is more valuable since Temirkanov's tenure began. Unlike predecessor David Zinman, who enjoyed talking to an audience from the stage, the Russian conductor does his communicating solely through music making, primarily because his command of English is limited.
Even without Temirkanov's participation, the BSO has continued to provide some musical conversations; they are a regular feature of the Saturday morning Casual Concerts. Other informal chats, perhaps along the lines of the National Symphony Orchestra's popular post-concert discussions with conductors, guest artists and orchestra members in Washington, may be developed.
Can't lose the magic
Ultimately, the BSO is challenging itself to create an array of musical products broad enough to satisfy conservative and adventuresome tastes, experienced concertgoers and first-timers, younger listeners and older ones. "It's not one size fits all," says Beth Mealey, BSO director of marketing.
Balancing so many potentially conflicting tastes and expectations is doubly difficult when you are trying all the while to be faithful to a fine art. "We are cognizant of the fact that we are the guardians of a cultural institution," says assistant principal violist Noah Chaves. "An orchestra is a museum. That's a word that gets thrown around in a negative way, but we're a museum in the best sense of the word."
Players and staffers alike talk about the difficulty of getting the public to notice such a museum in a distraction-heavy world.
"Is classical music too boring, compared to the normal American diet of entertainment?" Marvine says. "In some sense, we want our concerts to be more like mainstream entertainment, so people will think 'fun and excitement' when they think BSO. But, on the other hand, we want to provide an alternative to mainstream experiences. There is no substitute for the acoustical experience of 100 musicians with that variety of instruments making that sound."
Ultimately, the effort to improve the BSO's financial outlook and increase the number and enthusiasm of its audiences can only succeed if the product isn't lost in the new packaging.
"Artistic quality is the big No. 1 for the musicians," says Childress. "That's what's driving this."
Gidwitz echoes that sentiment.
"We cannot lose the focus on the music," he says. "Stirring performances are what we are about: we're supposed to be making magic here. As soon as you focus on something else at the expense of that, you are on a self-destructive path."