Members of the BSO enjoying an ovation at London's Royal Albert Hall in September.
Members of the BSO enjoying an ovation at London's Royal Albert Hall in September. (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

In Baltimore, we do not stick the adjective “world-class” to many things, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is certainly one of them. Aside from Johns Hopkins University and hospital, no institution is more commonly referred to as world-class. It’s a source of pride for people who don’t even go to the symphony.

But the BSO musicians — the men and women who produce the stunning sounds that come off the stage at The Meyerhoff and at Strathmore under Marin Alsop’s baton — say the orchestra will lose talent, artistic quality and prestige if the symphony’s management has its way.

Advertisement

In the fall, after the symphony returned from a tour of Ireland, Scotland and England, including a performance in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the BSO proposed cutting the orchestra’s year from 52 weeks to 40. The musicians were shocked. They say that means a 20 percent cut in pay at a time when they already make less than their peers in other major American orchestras, and the cut will diminish the talent pool. Already, they say, a couple of young musicians have left the BSO.

BSO musicians' contract extension expired late Tuesday

On the surface, nothing much has changed. The players aren’t on strike, and management hasn’t locked them out.

Why would the BSO management and board want to sound a retreat from a full, robust 52-week year? Why not ask more of Maryland’s many millionaires for donations? Why not ask the state for a little more support? The BSO’s campaign to raise millions for its endowment appears to be going well. Why not tap into the endowment a bit more? And why take this step when things are arguably on the upswing? (September-to-December ticket sales were up significantly over the same period last year.)

I sent questions by email to Peter Kjome, the BSO president and CEO. He got back to me on Friday.

“Despite intensive efforts to increase revenues and manage costs, the BSO has lost $16 million over the past decade alone,” Kjome wrote. “Following many years of losses, we are disappointed to be in this position but recognize that our business model needs to change.”

The BSO has an annual budget of around $28 million. There must be ways to close the gap without eating your seed corn. (Pardon that colloquialism about eating corn that should be saved for planting, but I use it whenever I suspect someone might be creating a long-term problem by going with a short-term remedy.)

The BSO gets supporting funds from the state and the counties surrounding Baltimore, but the orchestra took a hit during the recession. “Public funding levels from all sources decreased 30 percent between 2007 and 2017,” said Greg Mulligan, co-chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee. “We are asking elected officials to consider reinstating funding at the 2007 level, at least.”

That sounds like something that a little lobbying in Annapolis could achieve.

“Of the 21 major orchestras across the country, as defined by budget size, one third have seasons with fewer than 52 paid weeks,” Kjome wrote. “These orchestras continue to tour internationally, make recordings, win Grammy awards, and serve their communities, as will the BSO.”

All true, says Mulligan, but the Baltimore musicians will be paid a lot less than their peers in those orchestras; base annual salary will drop below $70,000 a year. “What they’re proposing is really draconian,” says Brian Prechtl, co-chair of the musicians’ committee.

BSO board chair: We need change to secure the orchestra's future

BSO board chair Barbara Bozzutto provides the board's perspective on budget cuts and schedule changes.

With all this in mind, it was pretty weird to walk into the Meyerhoff recently and read three things handed out in the lobby: A flyer from the musicians decrying the proposed cuts; a flyer from the BSO asking for donations on a “day of giving,” Feb. 11; and a page in the glossy program that described the orchestra’s “second century” campaign to raise $65 million “to build the BSO’s endowment, sustaining the organization’s growth and vitality.” As of November, the campaign had reached $46.8 million.

So the BSO is asking for donations to “sustain growth and vitality” while cutting back 12 weeks. That’s what strikes me as strange.

Kjome says the BSO currently gets more than $3.5 million per year from the endowment, representing a draw rate of 5.75 percent that, he said, is above what many experts recommend. Mulligan argues that state law allows a draw of up to seven percent, and the BSO should take it. “Our management,” he says, “is putting the orchestra's excellence and reputation at risk.”

Kjome says he’s just trying to get the BSO in a stronger financial position for the future. And, of course, that’s his job.

But too much of this proposal sounds like retreat. There must be a better fix than what’s proposed. The Orioles have made major changes in the hopes of getting back on a winning track. The Ravens went with a new quarterback; they might even be in the Super Bowl next year. The BSO needs to remain world-class, and that costs more money than they’ve already raised. So ask for more of it — just not from the musicians.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement