When the Baltimore Symphony's contract was about to end four years ago, the orchestra was coming off two very successful tours; fund raising was proceeding at an unprecedented rate -- and the expectations of the BSO players, who for years had been paid less than musicians at orchestras of comparable stature, were at an all-time high. But the orchestra's board and management looked at the orchestra's successes from a completely different perspective -- that of preserving its long-term stability. They conveyed their point of view in what the musicians believed to be a highhanded manner. The result was a five-month strike that was the longest and among the most bitter modern symphonic history.
Four years later, the contract signed after so much trouble is about to expire, but things are vastly different: The economy is in trouble, the BSO is beginning to run a deficit and the orchestra -- which has been forced to postpone two tours -- no longer thinks of itself as the Cinderella among American orchestras.
But there's another, more important difference: The lack of understanding that once created warring sides seems to have dissolved. Both management and the players, now negotiating a contract to replace the one that expires Sept. 19, expect an amicable settlement. A significant reason is the Committee for the Future -- a committee composed of players, board members and managers formed when the strike ended and that has met once a month ever since to share information about the orchestra's finances and its musicians' needs. That committee has already resulted in a number of significant changes -- in scheduling and in artistic policy -- that have created an atmosphere of increased trust. There is a current news blackout about specific issues on the table. But both sides are openly optimistic.
"Because of the communication we've had, everybody is completely informed as to everybody's concerns, and that has carried over into the current contract talks," says Joseph Turner, the orchestra's principal oboist and the chairman of the players' committee. "I'm optimistic that things will work out."
"There is an incredible determination on both sides of the table to understand the needs of the other party and to make sure that these negotiations don't get off track," adds John Gidwitz, the orchestra's executive director.
The improved atmosphere at the BSO is characteristic of large symphonies around the nation. Orchestras from the New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Symphony seem to be circling the wagons against a number of factors that threaten orchestras: government supports that have been severely curtailed; corporations, themselves ailing, that are not nearly as supportive as they were; competition for the entertainment dollar that is more cutthroat than ever; and an audience, diminished by decades of decreased musical education, that has to be created instead of merely attracted.
Orchestras have died
If board members, managers and players are forging new bonds because they fear the apocalypse, they can scarcely be blamed. In the last decade or so, orchestras in Kansas City, Miami, Denver, New Orleans and San Diego have died, and world-class orchestras such as those in Cleveland, Detroit and Cincinnati -- which have accumulated deficits of $8 million or more -- are seriously ill. Many orchestras have had to renegotiate contracts, with players accepting cutbacks in salaries, and earlier this month the players of the Toronto Symphony agreed to a cutback of more than 15 percent in order to avert bankruptcy.
So here is a prediction for the outcome of the BSO's current negotiations: Look for very modest increases in wages and benefits and increased participation by the BSO musicians in the orchestra's efforts at fund raising and marketing. The BSO is considered among the healthiest orchestras in the country, and it is in the players' best interests to keep it that way.
Four years ago the theme the striking players sounded was that of achieving "parity" of compensation with better-paid orchestras comparable artistic merit -- such as the St. Louis Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony, the National Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. Today that peer pressure has been considerably reduced. The annual minimum of $52,390 that BSO players earned in the 1991-'92 season is more than the $51,480 at the St. Louis Symphony.
And if that figure is still a good deal less than the $60,320 at the San Francisco Symphony, it's almost identical to the $53,550 that the Cincinnati players earned as a result of a giveback there of a week's salary. Although both Cincinnati and St. Louis make a good deal more because of lucrative recording contracts, in terms of base salary, the BSO -- while not near the top of its peer group -- is no longer at the absolute bottom. It's not likely that the players will want to be in the position of having a contract renegotiated and giving back what they have already achieved.