This is just the beginning, the first blip on a slippery slope whose ending is all too foreseeable.
On Nov. 1, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors announced its intention to cut the musicians’ employment schedule from 52 weeks to 40, and their salaries by 17 percent. And if that were to happen, it could mark the end of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as any kind of orchestra worth listening to–and possibly, the beginning of the end for other great orchestras in mid-size cities.
Over the last decade, there’s been plenty of strife in the world of classical music: a lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis that lasted from the October 2012 to February 2014, a strike at the Detroit Symphony that cancelled half of the 2010-11 season because of a proposed 30 percent wage cut, a two-month 2015 strike in Pittsburgh that reduced a proposed cut in musician’s salaries by half, 11 percent wage cuts in Cincinnati. Two lockouts for the Atlanta Symphony in two years over cuts in salary, weeks of employment and the outright number of musicians. But except in Atlanta, management and musicians reached a compromise that let the orchestras live on as full-time glories of their cities.
If the BSO is cut, what prevents it from being cut to ribbons? If a city has no need for a 52-week-a-year orchestra, why would it need a 40- or 30-week orchestra either? There is no such thing as a great part-time orchestra, no such thing as the best part-time musician. Once an orchestra becomes part-time, it is playing with a deck completely stacked against it. Several of the BSO’s best young musicians have already moved on to other orchestras, another 20 will consider it, and the best young musicians who might replace them will go look for jobs in Europe instead.
The importance of a great symphony orchestra to a city is not immediately apparent to most people. But like a great museum or library system, we ignore it at our peril. Any kind of good music or art or books can feed the soul, but only the older arts put us in contact with the distant periods of history, periods with glories just as great as ours, and yet these civilizations are long gone, their cultures vanished from the earth as a living, evolving thing.
Listening to their music, reading their books, looking at their art is not a passive process in which we just let their beauty wash over us. It informs our thoughts about why the cultures that birthed these works of art no longer exist. If you truly immerse yourself into their cultures, if you find yourself constantly thinking about the work of geniuses like Shakespeare, Beethoven or Michelangelo, you begin to perceive that they were ciphers, their work a conduit through which we see the entire outlook for a time and place. You begin to understand why their cultures rose to prominence, and how their cultures eventually fell.
In our era, when empathy is such a prized commodity, we don’t just need to understand one another, we need to understand the people who came before us. We need to feel what they felt from the inside, because by learning the lessons of fallen cultures, we can better understand what we can do better than they did.
Yes, a symphony orchestra is more a museum of the past than a living entity, but the more we give ourselves continuity with our past, the more securely we can ensure our future. At this rate, it won’t be long before cities like Baltimore forget why they needed a great orchestra in the first place, and that’s when the real trouble starts. The time to save these organizations is drawing to a close, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors has sent a message to all those other boards: these organizations are not worth saving.
In every major Rust Belt metropolis, in Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Minneapolis, even in Cleveland, there are arts organizations giving the performances of a lifetime. All over America, orchestras, theaters and museums are performing as though their lives depended on it, because they absolutely do; every one of them is a monument to mid-20th century prosperity and aspiration, operating like priceless antiques in an era that lets them collect dust, organizations that nobody steps up to take care of because nobody thinks they get enough out of the experience of taking care of them anymore.
Under Marin Alsop’s decade-long tenure, the BSO has been inclusive by any standard: to the people of Baltimore, to new composers, to amateur musicians, to other genres, to children. And yet doing everything right did nothing to stave off this moment.
The current problems at the BSO are neither accidental nor inevitable. Their problems have authors, and the authors must be named. Ugly labor negotiations are a fact of orchestral life, but never in BSO history, never in the recent history of American orchestras, has there ever been a proposition so drastic as this one. At this moment, the boards of more than half a dozen major American symphony orchestras are watching every move out of Baltimore.
CEO Peter J. Kjome and board chair Barbara Bozzuto are the first orchestral bosses with the chutzpah to do what every orchestral board in a Rust Belt town has long wanted: to gut the orchestra to shreds. For board leaders, heading a much smaller orchestra means fewer meetings to show up at, fewer concerts to be seen at, fewer donors to wine and dine, and less money to contribute themselves. But every decrease in their headaches is an increase the musicians’ heartaches.
If the current board of directors refuses to cough up the money to save an organization with their names on it without renting out their summer homes, going abroad three times a year rather than four, bequeathing each of their children with one less million dollars, they need to comb the entire world for board members willing to make those sacrifices and stay out of their way. What is the point of lending your names to an institution if you willfully preside over its decline?
Art is the world’s seismograph, helping us to interpret what has been, and what is to come. Americans invented entirely new art forms, incredible ones, but if we allow these monuments of old civilizations to crumble, then we lose our best link to them. We, our music, our movies, our economies and social programs, will become the stagnant civilization that another, younger civilization will have to find ways to retain just as we now preserve the vestiges of Old Europe in our orchestras and museums.
The heart of the BSO’s problem is the heart of the arts’ problem everywhere in America. The whole country has completely lost sight of what the arts are supposed to do for its audiences, both financially and spiritually.
It’s fairly common to hear supposedly educated people say that the arts are a tax-free siphoning scheme for rich people to invest their money into something that benefits only them. This is especially true in America, where rich people buy overrated abstract art as a monetary investment and a Koch brother gets a Lincoln Center theater named after him. Less commented upon are how orchestras and theater companies go into poor areas all the time to give performances and teach lessons in public schools, homeless shelters, even prisons. The arts are not a siphoning scheme, they are a nonprofit civic good. In the suburbs, you can read a good book or go to a good movie, but only cities have enough population density to make themselves common destinations for something as costly as the high arts.
If artistic organizations are good enough, people will spend money regularly in the surrounding restaurants and parking garages and bars and transit and gas stations. If their experience going to the symphony or theater is good enough, they’ll be curious about other artistic organizations around town, and the arts thereby create the synergy that makes for vibrant city life.
Spiritually, the point of the high arts is to create unity. It is always important for arts organizations to promote the new, but a symphony orchestra, museum or theater is also a custodian of the past. Their spiritual mission in America is to show that their millennia-long tradition of beauty is not something for rich people, or white people, but for everybody, and that we have finally arrived at the long-overdue moment for a new kind of master to arrive–an American, a person of color, a woman–to add names of equal luster to the grand traditions of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Tolstoy and Beethoven. The sentiments expressed by the great masters are great because they are universal, and in an era of such division, the high arts can speak to all of us because their content speaks to our political divisions, and simultaneously are so much larger than mere politics.
This sense of mission is what illustrious names from BSO history like Joseph Meyerhoff, Sergiu Comissiona and Joseph Leavitt seemed to understand implicitly. When Meyerhoff became board president in the late ’60s, the BSO was precisely the trivial joke it will now again become: playing in an unrenovated concert hall under a leaking roof, and rehearsing in the theater of the old Poly high school.
But Joseph Meyerhoff was so committed to the orchestra that he chose Sergiu Comissiona after considering 271 different conductors! As recounted in Michael Lisicky’s “Baltimore Symphony Orchesta: A Century of Sound,” Meyerhoff set goals for the symphony and realized them by inspiring musicians and the board alike by longterm goals. Through a combination of his own money, capital campaigns and civic ordinances for public funding, he built our concert hall, raised funds for tours, procured the BSO a semi-annual appearance on PBS, created a full-time symphony orchestra, secured the symphony its first recording contract and sent them on a tour to West and East Germany.
Some of his projects, like a state-of-the-art facility at Oregon Ridge, never materialized. Who cares? What mattered was to keep the organization focused on the next step, dreaming of better times and taking the initiative to make dreams a reality.
This is also what the next generation of BSO leaders–David Zinman, Calman Zamoiski, Lyn Meyerhoff and John Gidwitz–understood when they made the BSO the first orchestra to tour the Soviet Union in more than 10 years, when they secured BSO concerts a regular spot on NPR and had tour after tour, highly praised recording after highly praised recording. This is also what Marin Alsop has understood since first coming to Baltimore in 2007 under incredibly adverse circumstances that have not let up for the duration of her tenure. Since arriving in Baltimore, she’s endured a mutiny of players at the announcement of her hiring; a conservative board and management who, I believe, fought tooth and nail to scale back her progressive programs, both musical and civic; and now a management who wants to tear her orchestra to shreds. How much longer is she willing to put up with an organization less committed to being the best it can be?
This is also what former Mayor William Donald Schaefer understood implicitly. When the BSO had a labor dispute in 1972, Schaefer realized what was at stake, and immediately put together a blue ribbon panel to settle the BSO’s problems.
In 1975, when the recommendations were not followed closely enough, another work stoppage happened, and a federal mediator was called in who negotiated between musicians and management.
Neither of these negotiations staved off future disruptions, but they are the ante from which better solutions are found. It shows that every option has been exhausted, and will eventually motivate the private sector to get involved.
In 1981, a labor dispute threatened to cancel the entire season just a year before the then-new Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall opened. When that happened, local attorney and sports agent Ron Shapiro lent his services for an emergency negotiating session. By the end of the session, the musicians’ weekly base salaries were raised, and entirely new capital campaigns began. The contract also established a 52-week season.
So if current management does not have solutions, they must get the city and the state involved, and even if the city and state do not come up with workable solutions, they demonstrate to the private sector that all options have been exhausted, and will motivate gifted community members to find solutions where others cannot.
The BSO’s rise was simultaneous with Baltimore’s seemingly permanent civic decline, but in hard times, the BSO was a glory of the city to set alongside the Orioles and the Colts. Baltimore may not immediately realize that taking a full-time BSO away from it is an event roughly comparable to losing the Colts, but when this city has exhausted its entire will to revitalize itself, the realization will hit Baltimoreans very hard indeed. When yet another great Baltimore organization ceases to be great, it saps quality from every walk of life in this city.
It’s not as though a diminished BSO would result single-handedly in the decline of civilization, but it’s just one more great American institution that declines to the point that it ceases to fulfill its mission. There’s no reason for a symphony orchestra to exist except for us to know that our lives are a little more beautiful because it’s there, and whenever a potential concert is replaced by silence, it’s a sign that nobody cares enough to make something beautiful, and may not care enough to make anything at all.
If we believe that people in our society deserve dignity and progress, then we’ll want to give them as many chances to see and hear beautiful things that uplift them as we can. Symphony orchestras have been with us all through that rise of America to the world stage, and if symphony orchestras begin an irreversible decline, then all sorts of other civic organizations can decline too, organizations whose utility is 1,000 times more apparent.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the outcome of negotiations with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That orchestra’s work schedule was reduced from 52 weeks to 42 weeks in 2012. Baltimore Fishbowl regrets the error.
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