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Peabody dean: BSO needs to 'get the business model right'

Like many Marylanders, and as a former CEO of two major American orchestras, I am concerned by the challenges facing the Baltimore Symphony. As The Sun’s recent editorial rightly points out, there is adequate blame to go around, and the solutions will be broad-based and do not lie in one place or with one constituency. The ongoing discussion about the situation, though, has reinforced several misperceptions that obscure the path forward.

First, let’s be clear about the notion of quality. The musicians who are good enough to win positions in major orchestras like the BSO are at the top of their field and game and have spent a lifetime getting there. The competition for those positions is fierce. Unfortunately, the highly trained professionals at the top of many other fields are compensated far more than professional musicians. A “middle of the road” attorney can probably earn a higher salary than many musicians at the top of their game. That’s not a criticism of attorneys. But that’s the world we live in.

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At the same time, we should not make the mistake of equating the number of weeks an orchestra plays concerts with its quality. The notion that an orchestra has to be “52-weeks” to be a major institution was long ago debunked. I know, because I ran one of the orchestras that had reduced its season while maintaining its quality and reputation, the St. Louis Symphony.

As many commentators have pointed out, the benchmarks for fundraising and expectations of donors to support an institution of this level must be raised. If major donors and those with financial means really believe that having a great city requires a great orchestra, they need to demonstrate that with their checkbooks.

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But what does that mean? The standard used to be that a healthy endowment should be three times the operating budget of the organization. Today, most professionals would say that five to seven times budget is necessary. By that standard, the BSO is woefully underendowed.

On the subject of support, the state correctly has a role as well. The level of musical expertise that an orchestra like the BSO brings to Maryland has a substantive impact on artistic infrastructure well beyond the BSO’s specific programs. That expertise simply would not be here in the abundance that it is were it not for the BSO.

Expanding and diversifying audiences is another important piece of this. Are there other opportunities to produce new revenues? There may well be. Popular presentations and innovative programming that reach different audiences, when chosen well, marketed correctly and worked through a real business plan, can drive significant revenue to the bottom line.

This is not to say that any of this is easy. During my tenure at the Dallas Symphony, I had the joy of working with the late Roger Enrico, a member of my board, who had been enormously successful as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. Roger was truly a brilliant and down-to-earth guy. At one of my early lunches with him, he made the observation that the orchestra was a “little $30 million business, but a very complex little $30 million dollar business.” This from a guy who had run one of America’s biggest corporations.

The point is that there are no easy answers. What works in one city may not work in another, and there is no silver bullet.

The list of people whose failures have led to the current BSO debacle is long, but the big picture is that the status quo can't continue.

But there is a way out. There is a path forward. It will require something from everyone: reasonable concessions from musicians, coupled with a real commitment from the management and board that there is a secure path forward; donors and funders who step up on a larger scale and are prepared to support the institution at a substantively higher level than exists today; and creative programming to both expand audiences and bring financial benefits.

The BSO has done a lot right. They have been serious about community engagement, they have nurtured a fine orchestra, they have hired strong artistic leadership. They just need to get the business model right, and everybody who cares about the orchestra’s future needs to be a part of making that work. This is not easy and not without pain. But there are good examples of other major orchestras that have come through this and are strong institutions today. It can be done.

Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, is also a pianist and former president of the St. Louis Symphony. His email is fred.bronstein@jhu.edu.

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