BSO cancels some concerts

Objective is to save money on trips to Strathmore hall

November 09, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, fresh from playing to large, enthusiastic audiences during a European tour, is back to reality and fiscal priorities in Maryland, where low ticket sales and high costs have led to the cancellation of events at two venues.

Most of the cancellations are at the orchestra's second home, the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County, starting with a series of family concerts scheduled for launch Saturday. A sluggish box office and/or high production costs are blamed.

"There are pressures to reduce the [orchestra's] budget deficit in Baltimore," said Michael Mael, BSO vice president for Strathmore. "The concerts we have canceled were not going to do well economically. But the good news is that our core classical series are doing very well."

Also scratched:

two performances of Handel's Messiah in December

one of three "Midday Serenade" concerts new this season

one of two appearances by a BSO partner, the Soulful Symphony

nine of 16 educational concerts for Montgomery County school students

In Baltimore, a new matinee series of chamber music concerts at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, featuring BSO members and guest artists, was canceled before it even got started due to poor sales.

The cancellations come less than a month after BSO management reduced administrative personnel by about 20 percent to save more than $500,000.

The deletion of the Strathmore concerts is expected to save between $200,000 and $250,000 for the orchestra, which continues to be saddled with an accumulated deficit of about $10 million.

Last year, the BSO announced a bond deal to sell Meyerhoff Hall to a private corporation, but the proposal was quickly dropped. Lately, there have been rumors that the orchestra would attempt to obtain a state bailout, as it did in the mid-1980s. Earlier this year, the BSO hired a high-profile lobbyist in Annapolis, former state Sen. Barbara Hoffman.

"It's not unheard of," Hoffman said last night. "The state has a vested interest in the orchestra already. If we were to do this, I believe it's really salable to the legislature because the BSO is really the state's cultural institution, especially now that it is performing in two major venues. We'll see what happens."

While not addressing the rumors, BSO president James Glicker said, "We're developing various strategies involving both public and private money. We are talking to the state all the time, but nothing has crystallized into a plan."

The cost of taking the BSO to Strathmore several times a month - three buses, a truck, stagehands, hall rental - adds pressure to the annual budget.

"Those costs have always been factored in," Mael said. "We see Strathmore as a long-term investment. We don't expect to see returns for five to seven years, not 12 months."

Although the BSO has an endowment fund of about $90 million, only a small percentage of interest can be applied to the annual budget which is about $30 million. Dipping into an endowment to reduce accumulated deficits is rarely an option for any nonprofit organization.

The $100 million Strathmore facility opened in February with a gala concert by the BSO, the new center's premiere resident organization. Ticket sales for the orchestra's first season there - effectively, a half-season - were strong. Capacity for classical and pops events averaged 93 percent. That figure hovered near 60 percent in recent seasons at Meyerhoff Hall, but is "closer to 70 percent now," Glicker said.

So far this season, after only about a half-dozen concerts, average attendance is down about 10 percent at Strathmore. (The National Symphony Orchestra, which performs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, reports a 5 percent increase in subscription sales over last year.)

Glicker said the drop in attendance at Strathmore was not unexpected. "The history of most new halls is that you sell slightly less in the second year," he said. "We were expecting this. We didn't know the market perfectly when we went in. We could not know the exact demand for every kind of concert we do."

Julia Kirchhausen, vice president for public relations at the American Symphony Orchestra League was also not surprised by the news of the cutbacks. "There are natural peaks and valleys in any orchestra or arts center," she said. "The opening of a new hall is a natural curiosity the first season, but may be less ... the next."

(The Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland, College Park, opened in 2001, experienced a 6 percent increase in ticket sales during its second season.)

Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore's president and CEO, said that, overall, his new hall was "still in a honeymoon phase. There is a real excitement about the place.

"We had always counted on the BSO doing about 40 events a season," he said. "They went to 52 shows, a huge increase, this year. I think they were throwing out a lot of things to see what sticks."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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