BSO hires Meecham as president, CEO

Ex-executive director of Seattle Symphony to begin job in October

September 06, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has hired Paul Meecham, former executive director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, as president and chief executive officer. He is expected to start on the job early next month.

Meecham will step into a BSO just coming out of a tumultuous period that saw mounting deficits of roughly $16 million, the hiring of Marin Alsop to succeed Yuri Temirkanov as music director, turnover in the administrative staff and the opening of a second performance venue, the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.

"I think this position comes at a watershed time in the Baltimore Symphony's history," Meecham said from Seattle yesterday. "By all accounts, the orchestra is playing better than ever. The appointment of Marin Alsop really does signal an exciting new era, and the new home in Montgomery County is a unique and very interesting opportunity that no other orchestra has."

Meecham will succeed BSO interim president W. Gar Richlin, a board member who stepped into the top administrative job when James Glicker unexpectedly resigned in January.

Before being named to the top administrative post at the Seattle Symphony, the British-born Meecham, 49, served as general manager (the No. 2 staff job) of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

Meecham resigned his Seattle post in June "for personal reasons" after about 2 1/2 years. He did not elaborate on those reasons at the time and declined to do so yesterday. When his appointment to the Seattle Symphony post was announced in October 2003, news accounts noted opposition from some musicians and board members.

"I'm not going to say anything about the Seattle Symphony situation," Meecham said yesterday. "I had a very happy time there. I would only say that a lot of the reports in the press were not very accurate."

BSO board chairman Michael Bronfein said he had no concerns about any rockiness during Meecham's Seattle years.

"He has been very forthright with us," Bronfein said. "And we had a very fine search firm in New York, Phillips Oppenheim [which specializes in nonprofit organizations] that vetted candidates very thoroughly. We made no compromises in quality or standards. I am very satisfied that we have found someone with the skills we need."

Jane Marvine, head of the BSO players committee and a member of the CEO search committee, sounded equally enthusiastic. She met with Meecham on several occasions during the search process.

"We were impressed by his incredible experience in the industry," Marvine said. "He knows the inside workings of an orchestra, having worked with two outstanding institutions, the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. He is a very charismatic and personable presence, very charming. He's a very good listener. And he knows a lot about music."

Meecham, who studied piano and violin, was head of publicity for a major music publishing firm, Boosey and Hawkes, before entering the orchestral world in 1988, first as marketing manager at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He later managed the London Sinfonietta, a respected contemporary music ensemble.

At the Seattle Symphony, Meecham is credited with helping to launch a series of national radio broadcasts and develop commercial recordings on the Naxos label. He also introduced a multiyear plan to address the orchestra's deficits - the past two seasons have been in the red (news reports indicated an accumulated deficit approaching $3 million) - and increase its endowment.

Meecham successfully negotiated a four-year contract with the Seattle musicians, a contract that addressed some of the same issues - number of players, number of weeks of annual employment, health care costs - that face the BSO musicians, who are negotiating a new contract. Their contract expires Sept. 16.

"I'm not included in those negotiations," Meecham said, "but, from the little I've heard, I feel pretty confident that they will reach an agreement."

Bronfein said the talks "are progressing."

Saddled with deficits for several years, the BSO restructured its finances last season. About $30 million of a $90 million endowment was allocated to pay off the debt and provide a financial cushion for the 2006-'07 season. But there will still be considerable pressure to balance the $24 million budget.

"Look, I'm not denying there are some financial challenges, but I am very impressed by the turnaround plans adopted by the board," Meecham said. "I think there's a real unity of purpose to reach solutions that will achieve long-term stability."

Meecham, who heard the orchestra perform with Temirkanov in his final program as music director in June, said his approach to management involves "winning the trust and respect of the people you're dealing with. Once you've secured that, you can look at what the challenges are and face them as one organization."

Alsop, the BSO's music director-designate, praised Meecham's "artistic ingenuity and proven track record" in a statement released by the orchestra. "I look forward to working with him in increasing the orchestra's visibility nationally and internationally."

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