BSO cancels summer concerts, reaffirms proposal to reduce schedule

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Image via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook page.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced today the ensemble is cancelling concerts on its summer calendar, reaffirming the position of management that the orchestra must reduce the number of performances in order to sustain itself.

The New Music Festival, a showcase of work by modern women composers scheduled to start June 19, marks the first of the cancellations. In all, five concerts have been crossed off the calendar, including a performance with Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr. and the orchestra’s Star-Spangled Spectacular at Oregon Ridge on July 3.

A series of performances accompanying the film “West Side Story,” on June 13-16, will be the last concerts before the start of a new season in the fall.

Since the end of last year, BSO leadership and the orchestras players have been locked in a dispute over a plan to reduce the concert calendar from 52 weeks to 40 weeks. BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome has pointed to staggering losses of $16 million over the last decade as the impetus for the cuts.

But the players have said they take pride in being one of the remaining year-round orchestras in the U.S., and that shortening the calendar would damage the BSO’s reputation and drop salaries that are already low compared to their peers.

The musicians’ contract expired in January, but the BSO’s performances continued  as scheduled under the same payscale.

In a statement, Kjome said the decision to cancel summer performances was “extremely difficult” but necessary if the BSO is going to “continue to exist as a nationally renowned organization.”

“If the BSO is going to survive, our business model needs to change, and that change begins in earnest today,” he said. “In our view, moving from 52 weeks to 40 weeks is necessary. We look forward to working with our musicians as we navigate this change and prepare for a future that is strong and vibrant.”

Baltimore Symphony Musicians, a committee representing the players, said in a statement that today’s announcement came five days before the musicians and management were scheduled for a contract negotiating session.

Violinist Greg Mulligan, co-chair of the group, characterized the move as a “lock-out” and an insult to the state government after the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill, put forth by Del. Maggie McIntosh, to grant an additional $3.2 million in state funds over the next two years to help the orchestra’s financial woes.

“It is simply staggering that the BSO’s response to the serious and generous action of the Maryland state legislature and Governor Hogan’s authorization of $3.2 million in support of BSO, specifically to support the summer season and preserve BSO’s status as a full-time, world class symphony, is to stick the BSO’s finger in their eyes,” he said. “This is not just a lock-out of musicians; it is an outrageous affront to the public, the government, and to the BSO’s loyal patrons and supporters.”

But the money has not yet been dispersed.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan told The Sun the money is currently “fenced off,” meaning the administration are still deciding on whether to release it.

Even if it were to arrive, that extra money is not enough to make the orchestra solvent, Kjome said today.

“We greatly appreciate efforts made by legislative leaders and the governor to provide support during this time of transition,” he said. “Ultimately, we owe it to our musicians, donors, sponsors, subscribers, and our community, to create a financially sound organization that will allow us to continue performances at the very highest level.”

To cut costs, Kjome proposed reducing paid vacation from nine weeks to four, and said the weekly base pay for musicians would be increased to offset losses from a 40-week schedule. A benefits package with health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, long-term disability benefits and a pension would remain.

Baltimore Symphony Musicians countered that the proposal, in addition to cuts, contains 100 rule changes that “would degrade the health and safety of the musicians.”

The BSO said the two sides are still in negotiations on a new contract.

Other orchestras across the country have also struggled with how to make ends meet, and many have gone through similar labor struggles. A 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras found most organizations survive on philanthropic donations instead of ticket sales.

Still, as Mulligan told Baltimore Fishbowl earlier this year, Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the country and can support a full-time orchestra.

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

The players argue they’ve already made concessions up to this point. Even after the hiring of four musicians in February, Baltimore Symphony Musicians said the orchestra’s ranks were still short of the 83 members promised in the last contract.

In addition to asking for vacancies to be filled, the musicians have called for salary increases to, at a minimum, keep up with inflation.

According to figures compiled by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and provided by the Baltimore Symphony Musicians, the BSO’s baseline salary of $82,742 lags behind comparable markets in Detroit and St. Louis. Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati are able to pay wages approaching or exceeding six figures.

This story has been updated.

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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