Symphony Season

September 15, 1995

The last Baltimore team to wow Japan was not the O's but the BSO -- the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The Baltimore star best known in Europe is not Cal Ripken but David Zinman. The facility that put Baltimore on the map before Oriole Park was Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

It is great to have Music Director Zinman back from his eight-month sabbatical and on the podium as the BSO starts its 1995-1996 season. After a decade as music director, he has brought the orchestra to a brilliant sound. This not only thrills its thousands of regular listeners in Baltimore, but is exported in broadcasts, recordings and tours to the musical capitals of the United States, Europe and Asia.

This progress could be set back, as it was in the devastating 21-week strike of 1988-1989. The orchestra's contract expires this weekend. It is not only a possibility of a resumed baseball players' strike that threatens the city's and nation's cultural life, but this as well.

The orchestra made great strides in financial underpinnings even as Mr. Zinman sculpted its sound and renown. Its hard-wrought endowment of nearly $42 million, while less than half that of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's, is the envy of many a cultural center.

But the orchestra, ambitious as it should be, managed to outspend even its enlarged resources for three years and is in significant debt. The BSO came through the recession ending the 1980s in better shape than orchestras in larger markets but the structural changes in this region's business and the downward pressures on government spending for the arts have reduced its resources.

The players, far from being greedy, helped to subsidize the orchestra by agreeing to a salary reduction four years ago. Management, far from being cavalier about the talent, laid off two senior administrators early in the summer and replaced the fund-raiser in efforts to hold down administrative costs and attract more gifts.

Whether Baltimore is a big enough regional economy, with the JTC necessary priorities, to sustain the BSO at the level of the handful of great world orchestras remains to be seen (or, rather, heard). Sometimes a city can. Cleveland's rise to the Big Five almost a half century ago and Birmingham, England, more recently, come to mind.

Suspense is in the air till a new contract is inked. Meanwhile, it is deeply satisfying to hear one of the country's finest symphony orchestras in Meyerhoff Hall. It is one of the truly good things about Baltimore.

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