Money woes flood orchestras


BSO adds $291,000 to projected deficit for fiscal year

Music Column

March 18, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Like a persistent virus, the economic downturn continues to infect musical organizations across the country. No immediate cure is in sight.

Here at home, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's projected deficit for the current fiscal year has gone from $515,000, estimated last November, to $806,000 as of this month. Underlining the troubling financial picture is the fact that BSO management has unexpectedly opened up negotiations with the musicians, even though their contract, approved three years ago, doesn't expire until 2005.

Neither side will provide details of these discussions, but it's clear that the orchestra is looking into every option, including possible financial concessions from the players, to stop the flow of red ink.

Jeffrey Stewart, chairman of the players committee, would only say, "We are confident we can get through this." BSO president John Gidwitz expressed similar sentiments, noting that the latest deficit projection represents "a variance of only 1 percent of the budget right now."

The BSO's annual budget is about $25 million. A deficit of $661,000 remains from the last fiscal year, the first deficit carried by the BSO since 1996. If nothing changes by the end of this fiscal year, Aug. 31, the orchestra would have an accumulated debt of nearly $1.5 million.

Among the factors contributing to the larger deficit projection are lagging subscription sales, fewer rentals to outside groups of the BSO's Meyerhoff Hall and a decline in contributions. On the plus side, health insurance costs have been trimmed this year. Savings from staff reductions and unfilled orchestra vacancies also have helped the bottom line.

The worth of the BSO's endowment continues to slip, from a high of about $78 million two years ago to $58 million now. But, the diversified investments in the fund have outperformed the Standard & Poor's index, BSO chairman-elect Philip English said.

The orchestra has an encouraging history of weathering very tough times. And with the musicians closely involved in the board's decision-making process virtually every step of the way, the battle of the budget is being fought in a cohesive, cooperative way. If the community would join in the effort as whole-heartedly, the BSO's fiscal troubles could be quickly reversed.

Elsewhere, the Rochester Philharmonic in New York and the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky have been added to an already long-sick list - there's a $550,000 projected deficit for the former (plus a $900,000 cash shortage threatening next month's payroll), an $800,000 deficit for the latter. Rochester's annual budget is $7.8 million, Louisville's $6.1 million.

The Savannah Symphony in Georgia canceled part of its season due to a debt of $1.2 million, which equals almost half of its annual budget. Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony not only agreed to take a 20 percent pay cut to help save that orchestra, but even played for nothing earlier this month when there was no money at all in the till. The annual budget there is about $7 million.

In another part of Texas, musicians of the Houston Symphony rejected management's final offer, a 8.8 percent pay cut aimed at salvaging that orchestra's budget, and went on strike this month (management dismissed the players' counter offer of unpaid furloughs and other cost-cutting concessions). A $3 million deficit looms there; the annual budget is $22.5 million.

That's just a small portion of the bad news out there. With an outbreak of war threatening fresh ripples of negativity through the economy, more American orchestras could soon be playing in the key of debt. Not a pretty sound.

Looking for a leader

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra not only reports solid financial health, but the prospect of continued artistic health when founding music director Anne Harrigan steps down at the end of the 2003-2004 season after more than two decades of dynamic leadership. Out of 176 applicants for her job, four finalists have been chosen; each will conduct a program next season.

Markand Thakar, co-director of the graduate conducting program at the Peabody Institute and music director of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra in Michigan, will lead the ensemble in Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 (with soloist Brian Ganz) and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony in November.

Kirk Muspratt, music director of the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra and former resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, has chosen a program of Brahms' Hadyn Variations, Barber's Violin Concerto (with Ellen Pendleton Troyer as soloist) and Haydn's Symphony No. 102 for January 2004.

Next up is Apo Hsu, music director of the Springfield Symphony in Missouri and former artistic director of the Women's Philharmonic in San Francisco. In March 2004, she'll conduct Robert Ward's Symphony No. 6 and Schubert's Symphony No. 5, along with works for bassoon and orchestra by Vivaldi and Villa-Lobos (with Bryan Young as soloist).

Joel Revzen, artistic director of the Berkshire Opera Company and the Western New York Chamber Orchestra, will be on the podium for Dvorak's Serenade for Strings, Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez (with guitarist Gustavo Them) and Mozart's Prague Symphony.

Harrigan will conduct the annual holiday concert in December.

For more information on the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's 2003-2004 season, call 410-426-0157.

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