Requiem or reprieve?

February 14, 2006

Punk pianist Ben Folds got Dave Hammond to buy a ticket to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last fall for his first outing ever at the Meyerhoff. To this mechanic and part-time student, a night at the symphony ordinarily would mean having to wear a pair of "nice" pants. But not that night, and the orchestra's PopRocks performance so moved him, he gushed in a note to a concert organizer: "Pants be damned I will see them again!" If only the BSO's troubles could be solved with a few more Dave Hammonds in the house.

In its 90th year, the BSO has much to look forward to, but also much more to tackle: the end of maestro Yuri Temirkanov's tenure and the arrival of his star-powered successor, Marin Alsop; a popular venue in Montgomery County and upticks in new subscribers and college student attendance; the loss of its president, who abruptly departed after 18 months; and annual operating losses and a $10 million to $12 million deficit.

Retiring the latter is critical to the BSO's future, and it can't be done without an infusion of money, an increase in concertgoers and renewed interest from its well-off patrons. By March, the BSO will have the results of its long-overdue annual audit and we will see just how deep the hole is.

The BSO can't continue to rack up losses - this would be the fifth year. The board should examine its role in the ongoing deficit - it knew there was a problem because two years ago, symphony committees were debating ways to reverse declining revenue and shore up core subscribers - and clean house. The present situation requires new leadership, a recovery plan and decisive action to restore the BSO's financial health without jeopardizing its considerable reputation.

That will be the chief challenge for a new president. As the symphony's CEO, the president must be a tough, creative administrator with exceptional people skills who understands the BSO's needs and storied past. He or she must capitalize on the musical talent, cultivate corporate donors and engage new patrons.

When the orchestra struggled with operating deficits a decade ago, the state bailed it out with a six-year, $10 million subsidy that allowed the BSO to focus on increasing its endowment. That kind of support isn't likely again, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did propose in his budget a one-time $1 million grant for the BSO this year.

Musical offerings such as PopRocks, Soulful Symphony and a collaboration with the Baltimore Museum of Art have brought a younger, diverse audience to the Meyerhoff. But these initiatives can't solve the BSO's problem; they can only contribute to a solution. When English horn player Jane Marvine, head of the musicians committee, says, "This is a critical moment in our history," she is not overstating the situation.

The BSO is a first-class orchestra, a valuable community asset deserving of support - including everyone from the Dave Hammonds to the Meyerhoffs. What would Baltimore be without the Orioles or the Baltimore Museum of Art or the BSO? Baltimore - no, Maryland - must ask itself: Does it want to preserve a great orchestra, and what will it take to do so?

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