BSO decides to cut chorus

Upset singers told they will disband at season's close

Financial, artistic reasons

January 13, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN STAFF

After 32 years of service, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus will be disbanded at the end of the current season. BSO President John Gidwitz broke the news to the singers yesterday afternoon at a rehearsal for next week's program, which is to feature the 147-member chorus.

"It was dropped like a bomb," said chorus manager Cheryl Kauffman of the decision. "People reacted very emotionally. Doctors and lawyers, housewives and schoolteachers were in tears. Everyone wanted to find a way to make this not happen."

Gidwitz pointed to artistic and financial reasons for the action, which comes midway through a season that includes several more appearances by the volunteer chorus, including a performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana in April conducted by BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov.

The fate of the popular annual performances of Handel's Messiah is unclear. But Gidwitz said, "Next season is not going to reflect a lot of choral music."

"Disbanding the chorus is not going to save us a lot of money - about $150,000," Gidwitz said yesterday after meeting with the group. Salaries for a part-time director and manager are included in that figure.

"But there is a financial component to this," he added. "We have to control our expenses.

"We have a very good chorus, but it is not a world-class chorus. And it couldn't be one because we don't support it as we should. To fix the problem would be expensive. We've made a big commitment to the orchestra [the musicians' contract calls for significant salary increases over the next several years], and that will be a challenge to meet. To do the job right for the chorus would cost probably in the $400,000 to $500,000 range. The Chicago Symphony Chorus costs $1 million a year."

Gidwitz also said that BSO audiences had proven "not terribly supportive" of choral programs.

Said Kauffman of the choristers' reaction to these points: "They were having none of it."

"I was so furious at Gidwitz," said Kathleen Walsh, an alto in the chorus for six years. "It sounded to me like he was trying to convince himself that what he - or whoever - had decided is the right thing. He didn't give us any answers that made sense."

Among those singers questioning the dissolution of the chorus is Barry Berman, who has sung bass with the ensemble for all of its 32 years and is also a member of the BSO's board of directors.

"I believe that management is making a serious mistake," Berman said. "This is not only a good chorus, but is a resource and a link to the community that we're going to miss. I'm just befuddled by the idea that the orchestra is better off without a chorus than with one.

"On the other hand, I understand management's financial reason. It is important that we remain solvent. A lot of difficult choices have to be made; this is only one of them. The cost of the chorus is not big, but there is an accretion of small amounts."

Nationwide, arts organizations have been reporting the ill effects of the recession and post-Sept. 11 jitters. But Gidwitz said the BSO remains on sound financial footing and balanced its budget (the fiscal year ended Aug. 31), as it has for the past six years. Still, he acknowledged the possibility of further cuts - including the elimination of "a couple of staff positions, hopefully through attrition" - to keep the current budget in check.

"We have just cut $600,000 in expenses out of our [$25 million annual] budget," he said. "But we are not in a crisis. If anyone draws the conclusion [from the chorus decision] that we're hemorrhaging, you would be wrong. It's difficult every year to balance the budget."

Berman is likewise upbeat about the BSO's financial picture.

"We're in better shape than I can remember since the 1970s," he said. "I'm not at all pessimistic about the future."

Such statements have chorus members even more perplexed about the notion of dissolving the chorus to save money, especially since Gidwitz said choral works will still occasionally be programmed using an outside chorus.

"How can less than half of 1 percent of the budget make so much difference?" Kauffman said.

It is possible that artistic concerns played the larger role in the decision to fold the chorus. Although Gidwitz said that Temirkanov was not involved in that decision, he has been known to express displeasure with some results of the choral singing.

"There was one concert where Temirkanov did not think we were prepared," said Ronald Miller, president of the chorus and a member of the bass section. "But I think the main thing is that he wants massive amounts of sound."

This has meant the hiring of extra singers for some choral concerts to beef up the tone.

"I don't think it is a quality issue as much as a quantity issue," said Frank Nemhauser, in his second season as chorus director.

Nemhauser, like several of the singers, expressed the hope that the executive decision could be reversed. Meanwhile, there is some question whether the chorus will fulfill its remaining BSO commitments. There was talk after yesterday's meeting with Gidwitz of walking out of this week's concert.

"This is a highly spirited chorus," Nemhauser said. "They care a great deal about what they are doing. I fully expect everyone to show up for rehearsal Monday night and continue to work hard."

Walsh, the alto, plans to do just that.

"I was brought up to still do your job even under the worst of circumstances," she said. "But I'm still unhappy."

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