BSO management, take a bow Resourceful symphony officials are taking steps to keep good music in Baltimore, despite deficit.

March 03, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The biggest burst of creativity from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra nowadays may not be coming from the stage but from the front office. This is not to denigrate the orchestra's recent performances. It is only to note that the BSO -- in the brochure for the 1996-1997 season just mailed to subsribers -- seems to have a winning strategy for financially difficult times. The brochure shows that the orchestra is:

* Dealing with the possibility that David Zinman may not renew his contract as music director beyond the 1997-1998 season, and is seriously searching for his successor.

* Sidestepping rising costs, finding ways to engage the best soloists and conductors available without incurring increases in the deficit.

* Identifying and quickly engaging the musical stars of the future, who will presumably remain loyal to the orchestra as their fame (and fees) increase.

This is a critical time for the BSO. The orchestra's management is still engaged in negotiations with its musicians, who have been playing without a contract since September. The orchestra's deficit -- $2.2 million at the end of the 1994-1995 fiscal year -- has risen $1.3 million in the past two years. This is not the orchestra's fault -- the fall of the dollar, for example, has made it much more expensive to engage conductors and soloists with international reputations. But because the BSO cannot raise ticket prices without losing its mostly middle-class audience, its survival depends upon charitable contributions.

And large contributions do not ordinarily go to institutions whose ledger books indicate rising deficits. Simply put, wealthy individuals and corporations want their money to help build the future, not to pay off debts from the past.

The coming season should please such potential contributors. It demonstrates an orchestra keeping costs as low as possible without compromising quality. The expense for conductors and soloists is $550,000 -- exactly what it is this year.

The season also demonstrates the BSO's attention to its artistic, as well as financial, future.

Zinman's successor

Take the matter of a successor to Zinman, whose current contract expires at the conclusion of the 1997-1998 season. Everyone connected with the BSO says that Zinman, who is also the music director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra, in Switzerland, has no plans to leave. But every orchestra perpetually scouts for its next music director, and each new guest conductor is a candidate.

A little more than two years ago, the BSO was rudely reminded that anything can happen. Within a single month early in 1994, the Baltimore Symphony learned that Mariss Jansons would replace Lorin Maazel as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, that Hans Vonk would succeed Leonard Slatkin at the St. Louis Symphony, and that Eduardo Mata, the former music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, had died in an airplane accident. All three were popular with BSO musicians, and Jansons, who appeared here only a few weeks ago, almost certainly would have been the first to have been offered, had it been open, the director's job.

That helps explain why the BSO has engaged the Swiss conductor Mario Venzago four times this summer and twice in the fall. When Venzago made his first appearance with the orchestra last season, it seems safe to say, almost no one had heard of him. But his impressive performance put him far ahead, in the estimation of most players, of Zdenek Macal and Eri Klas, then the two leading candidates for possible future music director. By the time October ends, the BSO's musicians and management will have enough information about Venzago's *T strengths and weaknesses to make an informed judgment.

Costs of guest conducters

The orchestra will sidestep the rising costs of guest conductors and soloists in a number of ways. Take the case of Andras Schiff, whose performances next year will save about $25,000. How? It's simple: The orchestra doesn't have to hire a conductor.

The Hungarian-born Schiff is one of the world's best-known pianists, and standard operating practice would have had him perform a concerto by Bartok or Brahms -- big orchestral pieces that require a conductor. Among pianists with big reputations, however, Schiff is the only one who has a strong identification with the keyboard music of Bach, which he performs frequently in solo recitals in the United States but -- because he is rarely offered the opportunity -- hardly ever with an orchestra.

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