The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is and has been the very heart of the Baltimore arts scene for decades, but it is now in peril as BSO musicians passionately negotiate to preserve its artistic integrity and world-class status.
How can it be that the same BSO management that took the orchestra on an international tour to the United Kingdom just two months ago can return and claim it cannot sustain a 52-week season — proposing to cut its season to 40 weeks and musician salaries to match? Is this our same BSO that once toured Russia? Our same BSO that has entertained thousands of people at Oregon Ridge concerts during the summer? And that has touched city school children with its OrchKids program?
I was born and raised in Baltimore. I was only about 8 years old when I heard our BSO for the first time in the Meyerhoff. I vividly recall arriving in a parade of yellow school buses and being shepherded into the hall for a children's concert. What I saw and heard that day changed the trajectory of my life. I said to myself: "I have to do that — that is what I want to do." I began playing the flute in elementary school. In high school, I made it to the Meyerhoff stage for a "Side-by-Side" concert in which our BSO players hosted and performed side-by-side with student musicians from the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra. Ultimately, I studied at Peabody Conservatory — a school rich in history and faculty drawn from the major symphony orchestra only a few blocks away. While I was not one of the lucky ones to land a spot in the BSO, the hard work, talent and discipline it takes to win a position in a world-class orchestra is not lost on me. However, I am afraid it may be lost on our BSO's own management.
Our BSO is one of our major league teams. While many may settle for listening to recordings, there is nothing like hearing our BSO live. It's like the difference between listening to the Orioles game on the radio versus going to the stadium. There is an energy from the instruments' vibrations that cannot be duplicated in a recording. Watching the intensity of the musicians' passion and unified execution is mesmerizing. When you hear the BSO, you are hearing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours of practice room and lesson time, music that originated in the minds of composers present and past, and you are hearing the artistry and craftsmanship of the maker of every instrument on the stage — some of which date back to Bach's lifetime. This is a claim none of Baltimore's other major league teams can make. Our BSO was the first major orchestra to select a woman conductor. Our BSO has won Grammys for its recordings. It has been so loved that it plays in two venues — the Meyerhoff and Strathmore.
The BSO management needs to focus on its core mission and offer the musicians a contract that upholds it, which is to continue to give Baltimore "the highest quality symphonic music" performed by a world-class symphony orchestra.
The "highest quality symphonic music" comes from musicians who are paid fairly and have benefits to compensate for the physical demands of the job. It comes from an orchestra with a full complement of musicians so that audiences may enjoy the artistic force and impact that compositions were intended to have. (Can you play a Mahler symphony with eight violinists? Well, sure. But that is not the same as hearing it with 20 to 30.) It comes from attracting and retaining the highest-caliber talent our nation produces, and that takes a financial commitment to the ones who make the music.
The BSO's mission statement also says it has "achieved a preeminent place among the world's most important orchestras." Yet, it appears the BSO management is not on par with the musicians and is ready to abandon that status and abort its mission by failing to be transparent with financial information, failing to recognize what maintaining artistic excellence requires and failing to negotiate fairly with the talent who have brought our BSO international recognition.
Would you idly stand by while the Orioles were downgraded to the minor leagues? No way, right? We cannot allow this to happen to our BSO either. It’s time to stand up for the musicians who’ve so inspired our city.
Amy McDougal is CEO of CLEAResources; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.