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The Baltimore Symphony, Seeking Cuts, Locks Out Its Musicians


The Baltimore Symphony, Seeking Cuts, Locks Out Its Musicians

The cash-strapped Baltimore Symphony Orchestra locked out its musicians on Monday, as it sought to pressure the players into agreeing to a new contract with fewer paid weeks of work.

“Due to the Baltimore Symphony’s urgent need to address longstanding financial issues and change its business model, the B.S.O. has made this extremely difficult decision,” Peter Kjome, the orchestra’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The orchestra’s management has been trying to get the musicians to agree to a new contract that would cut their number of paid weeks of work to 40, from the current 52. Orchestra leaders have said that such a cut is needed to keep the orchestra afloat after years of deficits and difficulty raising money in Baltimore, a struggling city.

This spring, Maryland state lawmakers approved $3.2 million in aid to help the troubled orchestra get through the next two years, but Gov. Larry Hogan has indicated that he will “probably not” release the money, The Baltimore Sun reported. That complicated the orchestra’s plans to take out a short-term loan until the state aid materialized. A few weeks ago, the orchestra’s management abruptly canceled a series of summer concerts that it had announced earlier in the spring.

Going part-time would effectively dislodge the ensemble from the top tier of American orchestras, which have year-round contracts for their musicians. But as attendance has waned at many orchestras, some have begun to question if there is sufficient demand from ticket buyers to justify 52-week seasons — and contracts.

Musicians in Baltimore already earn less than many of their peers at year-round orchestras. Their base pay is currently just under $83,000, according to the musicians, which is low for a 52-week orchestra. At the other end of the spectrum, the much-wealthier San Francisco Symphony recently announced a new contract that will eventually raise the annual base pay of its musicians to $185,640. (The cost of living in San Francisco is, of course, far higher than in Baltimore.)

The Baltimore players said that a major cut in performing weeks — and therefore pay — would imperil the quality of the orchestra by making it difficult to attract and retain top musicians.

“History has taught the Baltimore Symphony musicians that concessions don’t solve the problems of chronic mismanagement,” the players said in a statement, adding that the musicians had regularly compromised with the administration in recent years.

These have been difficult times for many American orchestras, which have grown ever more reliant on donations and the investment income from their endowment funds. This year the players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike to resist changes to their pension plan, which they wound up accepting; last fall, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s orchestra held a brief strike before agreeing to a contract that guaranteed them fewer weeks of work.

But this month, the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose fiscal woes drove it to bankruptcy in 2011, announced a $55 million gift. Baltimore has struggled to secure donations of that magnitude. Joseph Meyerhoff II, a member of the orchestra’s endowment board, described the challenges in a letter to the editor of The Sun in February.

“The Meyerhoff family offered a $4 million challenge grant in 2017-2018 to raise funds for the endowment,” he wrote. “We met with or called every large foundation in Baltimore and at least two dozen of Baltimore’s wealthiest citizens. We came away empty-handed.”

The orchestra has raised its profile under the artistic leadership of Marin Alsop, its music director since 2007 and the first woman to lead a major American orchestra. She has embraced more innovative programming, led the ensemble on several tours, made a series of acclaimed recordings, and started OrchKids, an ambitious program that teaches music to more than 1,300 children in some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods.

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