BSO management undervalues musicians

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Board Chair Barbara Bozzuto asserts that the BSO management’s desire to “right-size” the orchestra is due to “expenses, which are spiraling and untenable.” However, a look at the pattern of spending, as evidenced in BSO financial statements, shows that the surgeon is removing the wrong organ.

According to the BSO’s own financial documents, shared with us by management, total compensation for musicians, including salaries and benefits, increased by less than 7 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2016. During the same period, total operating expenses for the BSO increased by a whopping 46 percent.

So if it has not been the cost of musicians that has caused issues in the budget, why then, would management insist that its musicians bear the burden of reducing costs? Not only does that disrespect the artists on the stage who make the music, it will irreparably harm the institution for decades to come. Make no mistake: Cuts will degrade the quality of the orchestra and hasten the decline of the ensemble itself and its resulting revenue.

Ms. Bozzuto points out her volunteer status and that of her board. Major orchestras depend on inspired volunteer leadership at the board level to support artistic achievements. Baltimore owes a debt of gratitude to the generations of visionary supporters and donors who have fostered the growth of the BSO from a fledgling city-sponsored organization to the world-class orchestra that recently completed an international tour to the U.K. and Ireland. This board and management, like all of the volunteer boards and professional management that preceded them, must be equal to the task of forging a visionary and successful artistic path.

The BSO has succeeded over the last 102 years by surrounding itself with people who believe in the mandate of steady growth over time. Now is not the time to abandon that philosophy. Michael Kaiser, renowned for turning around struggling arts organizations, has advised that “you can’t save your way to health” when running an arts institution. The cuts BSO leaders propose will forever diminish the BSO. Future generations will never have the chance to hear the BSO as we now know it. Patrons and donors will certainly recognize the diminished value of a formerly world-class orchestra, and they will find other more worthy organizations to support.

The vision for the BSO is suffering from a very basic fault. Dating back to the early 2000s, BSO management has de-emphasized the focus on the orchestra itself. Instead, management has invested energy, time and money into new and/or expanded programs. Many of these programs were and still are noble undertakings, but they have been started or have expanded at the same time that the orchestra itself has literally shrunk, from 98 full-time musicians in 2003 to 77 full-time musicians now.

This expansion of programs and contraction of the orchestra has occurred even as the organization went without vice presidents of marketing and development for more than a year and without a CEO for seven months. Incredibly, now that the BSO has filled these staff vacancies, the first major decision the organization wants to make is to hobble the very institution the staff is charged with developing.

The BSO’s chief “product” is the orchestra; no other single program brings in nearly as much revenue, both earned and contributed. Of all the elements of the present organization, one thing that doesn’t need to be “fixed” is the orchestra. The BSO sounds fantastic, as evidenced by our critically acclaimed performances on tour, and every week at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore and at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda. How can BSO management fail to see what an asset the orchestra is and thus fail to invest properly in the musicians who comprise it?

Instead of downgrading the Baltimore Symphony at the very moment it has returned from a triumphant international tour, we urge the board of directors and BSO management to reconsider their priorities. Focus on what an incredible asset we have developed over the last 102 years in our Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and think about how to empower the artistry of the organization. This will in turn spur even greater support from the Baltimore and Montgomery County communities, and from Maryland. Our citizens deserve a great orchestra, not a cut-rate one.

Greg Mulligan, first violin, and Brian Prechtl, percussion, are co-chairs of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians. They may be reached at opus95gm@gmail.com and bprechtl.1962@yahoo.com respectively.

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