Decision to silence BSO Chorus sounds off-key

Perceived shortfalls in cash, artistry or even patron interest hardly warrant tearing down a 32-year volunteer bridge to the community.

Classical Music: Commentary

January 20, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

If you're having trouble understanding why Baltimore Symphony Orchestra management has decided to dissolve the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus at the end of this season, after 32 years, you're not alone. For what it's worth, I find it disturbing, too.

At the very least, it looks awfully bad to fire a volunteer choir that has been willing to devote so much time and energy to the cause of good music. It looks even worse to announce the action a few days before the next concert featuring the chorus. Not the smoothest timing imaginable.

With nearly 150 members, representing a fairly wide spectrum of the public, the chorus represents one of the orchestra's bridges to the community. And no arts group can ever have too many of those.

With this particular bridge soon to be tumbling down, it's reasonable to ponder the whys and wherefores.

Obviously, there had to be serious pressures forcing the BSO to act -- and to risk a public relations headache. Here, to recap, is the essence of the argument advanced by BSO president John Gidwitz:

A) The chorus isn't at "world-class" level now.

B) There just isn't any money to help push it up to that level.

C) In the ongoing struggle to balance the budget, every dollar saved by the orchestra is of great importance, even the small amount (roughly half a percent of the BSO's $25 million annual budget) that currently goes to chorus expenses.

D) Since BSO audiences dislike choral music anyway, programming in the future will reflect that taste, and there is no point in continuing this chorus if there won't be enough for it to do.

"I would love to have a chorus," Gidwitz said a few days after he broke the news Jan. 12. "I agonized over this. I don't like hurting people. I am very respectful of their dedication."

'It's very painful'

It must be noted that many orchestras in this country do not have their own choruses; the New York Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestra come quickly to mind. There is no obligation for an orchestra to have a chorus, especially when located in an area that boasts other choral resources, as is the case with both New York and Washington -- and Baltimore, for that matter.

And, to be sure, it can cost a lot to support a top-of-the-line ensemble; the Chicago Symphony's chorus requires about $1 million annually.

"We believe we are not now giving the chorus anything like optimal support for its own development," Gidwitz said. "We don't supply the staffing or coaching and master classes like we used to do. And we can't provide the money to do that. It's very painful not to be able to do the job right."

How tight is the money situation at the BSO?

A piggy bank with a "Deficit Prevention" sign on it sits in the office of BSO vice president and chief financial officer Douglas R. Mann. It's just a joke, but with a serious point behind it.

Starting back in the fall, several events in the "Meyerhoff Presents" series -- non-BSO concerts booked into the theater, which is owned and operated by the orchestra -- failed to meet ticket sales expectations.

"There were probably overly optimistic revenue projections from these presentations," Mann said. "But even some acts that always sell well here didn't for some reason. This was one of the things driving the projected deficit."

Post-9 / 11 fallout may have been a factor, though sluggish box office figures continued for some events right on through the holidays. There were other things adversely affecting the BSO's operating budget; one was the unanticipated, security-related costs of the orchestra's European tour.

"We've been in this kind of situation before," Mann said. "We always make adjustments during the year to avoid a deficit. I'm confident we will avoid one this year."

Last year, to stay in the black, the BSO withdrew an extra $600,000 from the endowment (a percent above its usual withdrawal for operating expenses). That was considered a one-time thing.

When it became apparent that the orchestra could face a $750,000 deficit this fiscal year (which ends Aug. 31), every department was asked to make cuts in spending. Even such a seemingly trivial item as the biscotti dispensed in the patrons lounge of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall got the ax; a notice has been posted to inform these prized donors that their treats have been taken away in the name of fiscal responsibility.

With $600,000 in trims already made, officials are confident that the bottom line will be just fine.

On the good news side, the BSO's ticket sales are up slightly from last year -- $5.5 million vs. $5.3 million at the same time last year. Subscriptions are down 1 percent vs. last year, but single tickets are up 4 percent.

Another positive note is in the area of contributions.

"We are about 70 percent ahead of last year in private, annually given support," said Paul W. Hogle, vice president for development.

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