Image via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook page.
Image via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook page.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra today announced the unanimous adoption of a five-year plan the organization says will present a sustainable financial path forward and create new programming, months after economic struggles caused the cancellation of the summer season and a 12-week lockout of musicians.

Under the program, the orchestra will add more cross-over concert series, perform at various locations around the state, collaborate with other arts institutions and strengthen its educational programs, among other proposals.

The plan outlines a five-year path to “expand and strengthen programs and establish new levels of engagement with audience members, the broader community and Maryland,” and within that is a three-year artistic vision to roll out new types of programming and enhancements to the concert-going experience.

To help implement both, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds donated a new gift of $1 million, the orchestra announced today.

“Additional philanthropic support, including multi-year commitments, will be critical to the Orchestra’s ability to fully implement new initiatives and make the exciting future a reality,” the orchestra said in a release announcing the plan.

Speaking with Baltimore Fishbowl today, BSO president and CEO Peter Kjome said some features of the organization’s new artistic approach will be unveiled in a couple weeks, when the 2021 season is announced. And leadership is already looking beyond that.

“The three-year artistic plan is going to help us to develop important projects, and give us more time to plan those projects,” he said, adding the multi-year outlook makes it easier for internationally known guest artists with packed schedules to get on the BSO’s calendar.

Music Director Marin Alsop said in a statement, “I am delighted that this multi-year strategic plan will put the BSO on a road to stability and provide opportunities to build on its greatness.”

Percussionist Brian Prechtl, chair of the BSO Players Committee, said in a statement: “This plan brings the promise of a reimagined BSO that merges all that’s been built in the last 104 years with a bright vision for the future. We look forward to bringing performance and educational offerings to Baltimore City, Montgomery and the surrounding counties and the entire State of Maryland with passion and purpose.”

In recent years, Kjome said, the BSO hasn’t been able to lay out a schedule far beyond the upcoming season as the orchestra has been beset by financial struggles and only renewed its contract with musicians for a year at a time.

“We have planned for the future. But we have not always planned far enough ahead.”

A big stabilizing force came at the start of the year in the form of a $6 million gift from donors to put toward operating costs, plus $1.25 million for the BSO’s endowment.

Prior to that, a working group, created by the Maryland General Assembly as it sought to provide financial aid to the orchestra and chaired by former state Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, brought together musicians, board members, management and supporters to chart a path forward. The group met for the first time in August.

By September, the BSO announced a new one-year contract for musicians with a pay increase of 2.4 percent per week for a 38-week concert season, plus two weeks of the summer, ending the lockout.

In November, the organization enlisted Michael Kaiser, an arts administrator once dubbed the “Turnaround King,” to help develop the strategic plan.

Kjome said the collaboration between all of the orchestra’s stakeholders–the musicians, management, board members and supporters–was vital for developing the vision put forth with today’s announcement.

“We are working together in ways that we haven’t in many, many years,” he said.

And the reinvigorated support of financial backers and community leaders has been “enormously beneficial,” he added.

In addition to rolling out new concert series, such as mini-festivals and more genre-melding performances incorporating pop music, the BSO also hopes to reach new audiences.

The orchestra has already launched the Symphony in the City program, with performances later this year scheduled to take place at New Psalmist Baptist Church, Morgan State University’s Murphy Fine Arts Center and Patterson Park in the city. And it hopes to build on that with BSO in Your City, a series reaching other parts of the state.

And for people who have moved out of state, or for those who simply can’t make it to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or whatever venue the orchestra may be performing in that night, the BSO plans to start live-streaming concerts online.

The plan also calls for a Community Advisory Board to help develop new concerts or other educational programs. As one example, Kjome noted that gospel concerts have been particularly popular, drawing large and diverse crowds. Now the hope is to solicit more feedback from concert-goers about what they would like to see onstage and put those ideas into action.

“Communication is two ways: It’s talking and listening,” he said. “And we need to listen very carefully to the voice of our community.”

The BSO also hopes to enhance the experience of going to see a show with more artist events, food options and improvements to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

“This plan is going to help us enrich more lives in the community, grow and diversify our audience, and serve our communities not just in Baltimore and Montgomery County, but all across Maryland,” Kjome said.

One matter that remains unresolved is the flashpoint that set off labor unrest more than a year ago: the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s status as a year-round institution.

In January 2019, the contract between the musicians and the orchestra expired as Kjome and management sought to reduce the concert calendar from 52 weeks to 40 weeks, citing a loss of $16 million over the past decade.

Musicians balked at the cuts, arguing their compensation and the size of their roster was already lagging behind peer ensembles. While concerts continued without a new deal, both sides didn’t get any closer to an agreement, leading to the cancellation of the summer season in May and the lockout weeks later.

Speaking today, Kjome said he was optimistic about reaching a multi-year deal with the players, particularly given the current fiscal state of the BSO and the road forward outlined today.

He said negotiations could start as soon as next month, and didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to a 52-week schedule.

“This has been a powerful experience for all of us,” he said. “I feel more optimism about the future of the BSO than I felt since I began my role three years ago.”

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...

2 replies on “BSO adopts five-year plan for the future with new programming, community initiatives”

  1. Color me dubious. When I see language like “cross-pollinating performances” in stories like this, I’m fairly certain that the initiatives aren’t on solid ground. I love the BSO, but this direction is difficult to buy into.

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