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McIntosh files bill to give Baltimore Symphony Orchestra $3.2M over two years, create study group on finances

A top appropriator in Annapolis filed a bill Thursday that would direct an additional $3.2 million in state money to the cash-strapped Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over the next two years and create a special working group to look for ways to improve the institution’s finances in the future.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chair of the House appropriations committee, said the new funding would add to, rather than replace, existing local and state dollars for the BSO — including from the Maryland State Arts Council — that totaled $3.3 million this year. But it would likely supplant annual draws on the institution’s endowment, she said — namely as a means of stabilizing that fund, a major goal of the bill, while the working group gets underway.

“The Baltimore Symphony is absolutely one of the major, major, major arts organizations in the city. It represents us around the world,” McIntosh said. “We don’t want to lose that.”

The bill was quickly praised by BSO administrators and musicians alike.

“It’s very much needed, and I think it’s going to be great for the entire arts community in Baltimore,” said Brian Prechtl, 56, a percussionist and co-chair of the players’ committee. “A rising tide lifts all boats, and it’s important that an organization like the BSO is healthy and really leading the way.”

The legislation comes after years of growing BSO debt and amid ongoing contract negotiations between BSO management and the frustrated players union, which has suggested that a schedule cut (from 52 weeks to 40 weeks) and salary reduction (of up to 20 percent) proposed by management would downgrade the BSO from “a world-class symphony into a part-time regional orchestra.”

It comes amid a backlash to that plan within the community, in Annapolis and from the City Council, which passed a resolution this week that called on the state to step in and help the BSO — a cultural and educational anchor for the city — avoid crippling cuts.

Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, said in November that those cuts were needed to move in a sustainable way after a decade in which the BSO lost $16 million. Last month, the BSO Endowment Trust Board said that it had “reached the limit of our capacity to provide greater support” to the BSO without depleting its endowment and its purpose.

In a statement Thursday, Kjome called the proposed support outlined in McIntosh’s bill “remarkable,” and said the BSO’s directors, musicians and staff are “deeply grateful” for legislators’ “efforts to provide vital assistance to the BSO at a critical time in the history of our organization.”

He said “we all want to ensure that our community is home to an exceptional orchestra for many years to come.”

The bill would provide $1.6 million to the BSO in each of the next two years. The working group, meanwhile, would look for “structural efficiencies” related to the BSO’s health care costs and facility usage, and make recommendations on “cost containment and audience development” in a report to legislators due Oct. 1. It would be composed of BSO administrators, directors and players, and would be led by a chair named by top legislators.

McIntosh filed the legislation Thursday, relatively late in the waning legislative session. But her position as appropriations chair gives it added weight.

She said her hope for it is that it gives everyone involved more time to work through their differences. And she credited the musicians, and their supporters, with waking her and other legislators — through phone calls and in-person visits in Annapolis — to the real stakes involved if nothing were done, in Baltimore but also in Montgomery County, where the state spent $100 million to build a second home for the BSO to play, at the Strathmore.

“I just realized, and so did many others, that this would result in us probably losing really good musicians,” she said.

She said her hope is that, with the working group’s identifying efficiencies and the endowment given a break to rebuild, the BSO will come out of the process on much firmer footing, and with a clear path toward a sustainable future.

City Councilman Eric Costello, who filed the resolution calling for more state funding for the BSO earlier this week, said Thursday that he is “very grateful” to McIntosh, who he called “a champion of all things Baltimore,” and hopeful her bill passes.

“I trust that Del. McIntosh has set up an appropriate mechanism to ensure that the BSO can be on a sustainable course to maintain its world-class status,” he said.

Greg Mulligan, a violinist and the other co-chair of the players’ committee, said he was “incredibly grateful” for the generosity of McIntosh, believes the bill will “solve the immediate crisis” of proposed cuts for the players, and is excited by the prospect of the working group.

Prechtl, his percussionist partner, said he was so proud of all the musicians and arts supporters across the state who pushed this to happen.

“The musicians are the ones who started this grassroots initiative, and the management saw just how much steam it was picking up and how much concern there was in the community and that we would be better off working together,” he said. “It’s incredibly encouraging. This is just what we’ve been trying to get to happen.”

krector@baltsun.com

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