BSO management, musicians agree on one-year deal with shortened season, pay raises

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BSO board chair Barbara Bozzuto addresses media inside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

After a lockout that ran through the summer, and more than half a year of its musicians playing without a contract, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s management and players have agreed on a deal running through Sept. 6, 2020.

The musicians and BSO leadership ratified the contract Monday morning after hours of negotiations and multiple canceled season-opening performances.

The one-year deal gives the musicians a pay increase of 2.4 percent per week for a 38-week concert season, plus two weeks of the summer, as well as combined bonus compensation of $1.6 million to cover the summer weeks when they’re away. They’ll also receive year-round benefits, including medical, dental, vision, life, long-term disability and instrument insurance, and four weeks of paid vacation during their concert season.

The BSO also committed to hiring additional musicians during the upcoming season and creating a standing “Vision Committee” that will include participation from musicians “to plan for the future of the BSO.”

Both sides have agreed to forego any strikes or lockouts until the deal expires, and the musicians have said they will withdraw their unfair labor practice charge.

“It’s good to be back on this stage,” said percussionist Brian Prechtl at a press conference inside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Monday afternoon.

The co-chair of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ players committee described the now-finished lockout as a “difficult 14 weeks,” but said they showed “that this institution is incredibly important to the city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland and all of its citizens.”

Marin Alsop, the BSO’s musical director, nodded to the temporary term of the contract, but said there’s now “collaborative momentum” to reach a more permanent agreement. She added that both sides are “working so that this great city of Baltimore doesn’t lose one of the true treasures, not just of Baltimore but of the United States.”

The press conference came with fanfare, taking place at center stage and with attendees facing outward into the many levels of seats inside the Midtown symphony hall. It included an introductory duet by two BSO trumpeters and an outro by a brass quintet. Elected officials, including Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Council President Brandon Scott and Republican Baltimore County Sen. Christ West, joined musicians, players and other stakeholders on-stage.

Young celebrated the ratification of the agreement, saying it will “get our other major league team back in the game.”

A brass quintet from the BSO closes out the announcement. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Since last October, management and the players grew further apart on the BSO’s status as one of the country’s remaining year-round orchestras. BSO president and CEO Peter Kjome called for reducing the band’s concert calendar from 52 weeks to 40 weeks, pointing to losses of $16 million over the last decade.

The musicians argued the BSO’s reputation would only be hurt by eliminating its year-round status, and said they’ve already made sacrifices both in their roster and salary.

Baltimore Symphony Musicians last year highlighted numbers compiled by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians that show the BSO lags behind its peers in compensation.

The baseline salary at the BSO is $82,742, violinist Greg Mulligan said at the time. Two comparable markets in 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.

“If we were to accept these cuts, it would be a significant downgrade of our orchestra that Maryland and Baltimore deserve, and can afford,” Mulligan told Baltimore Fishbowl in January. The players are “very proud” of the BSO’s status as one of the remaining year-round orchestras, he added.

The previous contract between the two sides expired in January, but performances continued on under the terms of that agreement. Negotiations on a new deal continued on in the winter and spring without much progress.

Lawmakers stepped in offering help. During the 2019 legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill, sponsored by Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, to offer $1.6 million to help the orchestra. One of the conditions was that the two sides form a work group to devise a sustainable path forward. That body has already begun to meet.

But Gov. Larry Hogan has not yet released the funds, pointing to numerous state contributions the BSO already receives.

In late May, management abruptly canceled the summer concert season, and weeks later, locked the musicians out. With no concerts to perform and no paychecks coming in, musicians expressed concern over taking care of themselves and their families, and they took to the streets outside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to march in protest and rally support from passersby.

They also got creative, scheduling concerts in Metro stations, the Basilica downtown and, in lieu of an official opener last weekend, at New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore.

Early on in the stalemate, both sides were able to reach an agreement to extend healthcare and other benefits for the musicians during the summer months, a gift that was made by several donations, including from a few members of the orchestra’s board of directors.

Beyond that, there was little movement toward a deal. To support its push for schedule reductions, the BSO released an audit this summer that showed a decrease in donations and recurring deficits created “substantial doubt regarding the Symphony’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

“This announcement makes it more clear than ever that we must ensure a sustainable business model that helps control costs while expanding revenues,” Kjome said in a release about the audit. “It is vital that we move forward together toward a stable future.”

Negotiations continued as the fall season approached, but it appeared little headway was made. The lockout was lifted by management on Sept. 9, only to be followed up days later by competing statements from the two parties, with Baltimore Symphony Musicians characterizing the most recent proposal as a “take it or leave it” offer and Kjome urging them to accept.

The musicians voted to reject the contract, and a season preview concert scheduled for last Saturday was postponed and later cancelled as a result. On Sept. 14, the original date of the performance, an ensemble of musicians, led by Alsop, played the free concert at New Shiloh Baptist Church.

Even with both sides signing off on the deal announced today, the future remains uncertain. Asked whether the Vision Committee will explore ways to restore a full-length season, Kjome said there remains a “difference in opinion about what could be sustainable for the BSO.” He also repeated the need for the BSO to expand its donor and audience base to achieve a steadier stream to fund operations in future years.

But Prechtl was optimistic both sides build on this contract for next year.

“We are confident that if we work together and if we really think about what’s best… we will come to an agreement far in advance of the expiration of this contract.”

The BSO’s season begins this Friday with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4” at the Meyerhoff, followed by “Symphonic Fairy Tale” and “Music Box: Autumn Colors” the first weekend of October and a series of pops concerts honoring the music of Nat King Cole from Oct. 10-13. The full schedule, running through Dec. 31, is available here.



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