April 02, 2006

Using the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's $90 million endowment to wipe out its deficit and begin the new year with a cushion of cash - that's the easy part. The really tough work for the BSO board of directors still lies ahead. It has to come up with a financial and operating plan that keeps the organization in the black without compromising the quality of the orchestra and the music it makes.

No self-respecting orchestra wants to raid its endowment - at least not to the tune of $27.5 million, nearly a third of its total. But the BSO seems to have had little choice. With annual, rolling deficits that are expected to total more than $16 million by year's end and the orchestra eager to promote its exciting new music director, the BSO board last week opted for a quick infusion of cash to give the orchestra a fresh start and money in hand to build confidence among patrons, drive subscriptions and capitalize on maestro Marin Alsop's star power.

It also secured the rest of the endowment by placing it and the BSO's real property assets - Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and its nearby parking garage - into a special trust, which cannot be touched. That was prudent and politically smart - contributors want assurances that they are helping an orchestra with a firm foundation, a future and the ability to carry out their wishes. But using a hefty sum of the endowment has consequences for the BSO's operating funds.

W. Gar Richlin, the BSO's interim president, has pledged a balanced budget for the year that begins in September. That should mean living within its means. But Mr. Richlin, a board member and lawyer who was drafted for the post after James Glicker abruptly resigned in January, has given no hint as to how he will accomplish that. Cost-cutting measures from last fall - 10 layoffs, cuts in health benefits for administrative staff and a scaled-back program at Strathmore - resulted in savings of about $900,000.

No one will say what's in store for the BSO's 96-member orchestra, with contract negotiations due to begin this summer. But nearly half of the BSO's $30 million operating budget is tied to artistic personnel, which includes guest performers. Although Ms. Alsop doesn't officially assume her duties until 2007, she made headlines because she is the first woman to direct a major orchestra - and major is the operative word. Scaling back the orchestra or its 52-week season would be counterproductive at a time when the BSO needs to build its audience.

Securing the BSO's future demands a strong president, development director - the key fundraiser - and management team. That's easy to say, but it may be tough to deliver.

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