It's past time for a hard conversation about the BSO

The long-simmering problems that have long beset the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra bloomed into a full debacle Thursday when the BSO management suddenly canceled a summer concert series just hours before musicians went on stage to perform a Beethoven piano concerto and other works. It was shocking to symphony patrons, musicians who are now faced with a 20 percent pay cut, and lawmakers who thought they had worked out a deal to avoid just such an outcome. Plenty of people share some blame for the way these latest developments went down, but we can't let the anger of the moment distract us from the big picture reality that the BSO, like orchestras all across the country, faces tremendous financial pressures and must adapt if it is to survive.

BSO management, led by CEO Peter Kjome, deserves some blame for failing, amid the months of discussion about additional state support for the symphony during this year's legislative session, to make clear just how close to the fiscal edge the orchestra is. It's no secret that the BSO has been losing money for years — $16 million over the last decade — but the fact that even with the extra funding Del. Maggie McIntosh wrangled the symphony will struggle to meet payroll this summer was not widely understood. Given those circumstances, the announcement in April of an ambitious summer schedule seems foolish.


Lawmakers thought they were buying the orchestra enough time to re-examine its costs, raise more money for its endowment and develop a sustainable fiscal structure that would not entail sacrifices on this scale for the musicians. If that wasn't the case, the BSO management should have said so before Thursday.

(In fairness to Mr. Kjome, these problems began long before he arrived in Baltimore. At least he's trying to fix them rather than hoping they'll miraculously go away.)


It's clear, though, that the orchestra would be in a much better position if Gov. Larry Hogan had agreed to spend the $3.2 million over two years that Del. Maggie McIntosh and others worked for months to secure in the state budget. Legislators can't add money to the budget or shift it from one priority to another, but they can make cuts in the governor's proposal and dictate that the money can only be used for a particular purpose, in this case helping the BSO. But the governor doesn't have to spend the money. He can leave it in the state's accounts, and he's been known to do that before, including a refusal to release millions for schools in Baltimore and elsewhere early in his first term. Why it has taken him months to make up his mind about this expenditure, we have no idea. His indecision and the uncertainty it has caused have exacerbated a bad situation.

As for the musicians, their outrage is understandable. They have been jerked around on the summer season this year, and they have every right to be upset at the prospect of losing a fifth of their pay. Who wouldn't be? They are world-class artists, and the orchestra's financial problems can't be blamed on the quality of their musicianship.

But we do need to make a distinction between the current musicians and the orchestra as an institution. Much of the players' argument has been that the management's proposal to control costs amounts to shifting the BSO to a part-time orchestra, but the truth is that it would have little impact on the number of concerts each year. The main season, running from September to June, is about 150 concerts now, and it would still be if the management proposal is enacted. The summer season (with the exception of the Oregon Ridge concert on the 4th of July, which Mr. Kjome says he hopes to restore after this year) has never been a core part of the orchestra's schedule.

The difference is that musicians now get nine weeks of paid vacation per year, and management is proposing four. (Musicians also get two additional weeks of guaranteed relief time so that they can recover from particularly demanding performances.) Musicians would be paid for fewer of the weeks in which they wouldn't be performing anyway, hence the pay cut.

Some musicians who can get jobs with bigger, better paying orchestras might do so under those circumstances, but the idea that the BSO's quality would inexorably decline is belied by the experience of orchestras in other cities — Atlanta, St. Louis and Detroit, for example — that have gone through similar financial retrenchments and maintained their artistry and reputations.

Where do we go from here? Governor Hogan needs to release the funds, even if it's not in time to save the summer season. The BSO's finances are precarious,and it needs some breathing room while it continues contract negotiations with the musicians. But more state funding isn't the long-term answer. The BSO is already, by far, the largest recipient of state grants to arts institutions. It needs to take steps to put its books in balance. The state funding bill required the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to examine the BSO's finances, and that needs to be given time to find cost savings that have a less dire impact on the musicians and the product. Musicians need to be prepared to make some concessions on things like vacation time and health care cost sharing. And finally, Baltimore's patrons of the arts need to commit to a major capital campaign for the BSO. It compares favorably to its peer orchestras in most respects — annual giving, ticket revenue, etc. — but not in the size of its endowment and hence the amount it can safely draw every year to support operations. If the BSO's endowment was the size of the St. Louis symphony's, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

One more thing: Many of the other U.S. symphonies that have gone through a financial crisis like this have only emerged after a lengthy lockout of musicians. For the sake of the BSO's tradition, of Baltimore's music lovers and of all the children who benefit from the symphony's educational programs, we hope that won't happen here.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.