Key players in the ongoing labor dispute and financial struggles at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra met in Annapolis Friday for an awkward discussion of the institution’s future.
A work group created by the Maryland General Assembly brought together representatives of the musicians, management and the board of directors. For about 90 minutes, they discussed their hopes for the beleaguered symphony, but struggled to settle on a path forward.
The work group’s first meeting came as a labor dispute between management and the musicians threatens the next season of performances, set to begin in September.
“It’s sort of an awkward situation that we’ve all kind of agreed this work group is in,” said Ed Kasemeyer, a former Democratic state senator who is the work group’s chairman. He is the only member of the work group who is not affiliated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
All parties agreed they want to resume offering concerts and work on a long-term plan for financial sustainability. But they agreed on little else.
A representative from the Maryland State Arts Council proposed hiring a consultant to go over the BSO finances and make recommendations. But there was push back from the players, who suggested a different consultant.
There also was disagreement over how much focus the work group should give to looking at the orchestra’s past financial problems, versus discussing changes that need to be made for the future.
The work group was established by state lawmakers as part of a bill that was designed to send extra money to the financially distressed symphony. It is charged with examining the symphony’s finances and offering recommendations by Oct. 1 on “cost containment strategies” and “audience development.”
When lawmakers passed the bill, they expected the symphony would have gotten an infusion of cash included in the legislation to help keep the struggling organization going.
The bill included $1.6 million in extra state funding for the fiscal year that started July 1, and another $1.6 million for next year.
Gov. Larry Hogan exercised his authority not to distribute this year’s money to the symphony. The symphony funding was among $245 million worth of budget items that the Republican governor had discretion to spend or not due to the way Democratic lawmakers put the money into the budget.
BSO leaders said they were counting on using the $1.6 million extra to keep afloat and buy more time to come up with a financial plan.
The musicians have been without a contract since January. In June, management canceled the orchestra’s summer concerts and locked out the musicians.
That the BSO is facing both a short-term labor crisis and long-term financial instability gives the group’s work more urgency, Kasemeyer said. “There was an assumption the symphony would continue to function and this work group would, over the course of time, develop … some kind of long-term agreement to be struck where we’d be in business for a long time,” he said.
Peter Kjome, the BSO’s executive director, acknowledged the organization has had “substantial financial challenges” for years. He said the work group is “a vital opportunity” to bring the various parties together.
“It is very important that we get back to playing concerts and get back to providing educational programs,” Kjome said.
Brian Prechtl, a percussionist and co-chair of the BSO Players Committee, agreed that restoring performances is important.
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“We’ve got to get this orchestra back on the stage, but we need a contract to do that,” he said.
Prechtl said he’s optimistic that the musicians can get back to work and the BSO’s fortunes can be reversed. The next meeting between the union and management is scheduled for Tuesday.
“We believe there is a bright future here. We believe there is a path,” he said.
Fred Lazarus, former longtime president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who has been trying to drum up donations for the BSO, said it’s imperative that all sides work together to show donors that their investment will be worthwhile.
“You can’t get people to invest in a failing organization,” said Lazarus, who is not a member of the work group.
But after 90 minutes of discussion, it remained unclear how the work group would move forward.
Even the next meeting date isn’t firm. Kasemeyer told work group members to “pencil in” Wednesday on their calendars.