As contract expires, BSO management, musicians remain in stalemate over cuts

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Image via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook page.

With their contract expiring at midnight last night, musicians in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this morning condemned management for refusing to offer an extension and back off proposals to cut the group’s schedule from 52 weeks to 40 weeks.

“Our priorities are focused on maintaining a competitive compensation and benefit package that will allow the organization to attract and retain high caliber musicians, on maintaining and improving the health and safety of our musicians, and on empowering the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to bring transcendent performances to audiences in Maryland and beyond,” the Baltimore Symphony Musicians wrote in a release.

A reduction in performances will also result in a drop in salaries and benefits, players said, that would damage the orchestra and its future. For now, the concerts–including this Thursday’s performance with local electronic musician Dan Deacon–will go on, with performers being compensated at the same payscale as in the just-expired four-month contract.

In a statement, orchestra leadership said they value the players and want to put to get the BSO on a better financial path to “help ensure that Baltimore and Maryland are home to a fine orchestra for many years to come, with a bright future and an organization better able to serve its family of audience members and donors, along with our broader community.”

BSO CEO Peter Kjome has previously said the nonprofit has lost $16 million over the past decade.

“There have been intensive efforts to increase revenues and manage costs, but despite these efforts, we have experienced consistent deficits,” he wrote in a November 2018 letter. “Extremely generous gifts to support general operations, along with support designated for special projects such as the tour, have not enabled us to overcome annual losses. Our business model needs to change.

In 2016, The New York Times deemed that “many orchestras are now charities” after a report by the League of American Orchestras found most groups depended more on philanthropic donations than ticket sales to continue operations.

Violinist Greg Mulligan, co-chair of the players’ committee, challenged the idea the BSO–and, more broadly, orchestras everywhere–are unsustainable. While acknowledging the city has its struggles, he pointed to Maryland being one of the wealthiest states in the country and businesses in the region whose workers demand great culture.

Of the last 26 orchestra contract settlements, a grouping that includes cities comparable to Baltimore such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, only one, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, has resulted in musicians taking financial cuts, he said. In that dispute, members ended up striking for several days before agreeing to a contract that raised salaries but offered fewer weeks of work, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Mulligan said the players are not yet intending to strike.

“The only reason there would be a work stoppage is if the BSO locks us out or stops honoring the terms of our recently expired agreement.”

The BSO is one of 17 orchestras in the U.S. that still maintains a 52-week schedule, said Mulligan.

“We’re very proud of that,” he said, noting it is an important factor for musicians looking to audition with an orchestra, as are wages and the quality of performance.

“If we were to accept these cuts,” he added, “it would be a significant downgrade of our orchestra that Maryland and Baltimore deserve, and can afford.”

In addition to maintaining a year-round slate of concerts, the players are asking for salary increases to, at a minimum, keep up with inflation; better benefits and for management to fill vacant positions within the orchestra.

Numbers compiled by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and provided by the Baltimore Symphony Musicians show the BSO lags behind its peers in both compensation and the size of its roster.

The baseline salary at the BSO is $82,742, said Mulligan. Both Detroit and St. Louis offer more, at $85,618 and $89,495, respectively. Salaries for companies in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati all approach or exceed $100,000.

As for the number of musicians, Baltimore has 77 full-time players–Mulligan said their contract calls for a minimum of 83–compared with 85 in Detroit, 88 in Cincinnati and 94 in St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

Several notable figures have come out in support of the musicians, including former Governor and Mayor Martin O’Malley and Mayor Catherine Pugh, who both attended a performance at the Baltimore Basilica that doubled as an event to raise funds for My Sister’s Place and raise attention about the labor dispute.

“Baltimore is a major league city,” O’Malley affirmed.

In an interview with Baltimore magazine, Deacon said he backs the players “entirely.”

“Imagine if the Baltimore Museum of Art closed for a significant portion of the year, having wings closed and the art shifted out. When you think about it in any other context, it’s clearly a massive mistake. Imagining Baltimore without the BSO would be a shame.”

Mulligan pointed to a number of op-eds and letters to the editor in The Sun and The Washington Post backing the players, and the formation of a group called Save Our BSO comprised of subscribers who give at least $3,000 per year.

And there’s also the work BSO musicians do to promote classical music and educate young players, such as the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra and the after-school program OrchKids.

“We musicians are part of the community and love the community,” said Mulligan. “We root for Baltimore and Maryland, and we want to keep playing great music for everybody.”

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore Business Journal, b and others. Prior to joining Baltimore Fishbowl, he was an editor at City Paper from 2012 to 2017. He can be reached at [email protected]
Brandon Weigel


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1 COMMENT

  1. If anyone writing and speaking about this were to actually review the BSO calendar, they would see that there are most definitely not concerts every week of the year. The season runs from September to June, with an extremely short summer season.

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