Figures take center stage in BSO talks

Budget concerns may affect orchestra size, season length

September 12, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

Is no news good news?

Both sides negotiating a new contract for Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians have maintained a media blackout, but, with the current contract set to expire Saturday night after the annual BSO gala, there are a few favorable signs - and also potential concerns.

"I believe the talks took a quantum leap forward" last week, said BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney. Also last week, Michael Bronfein, the BSO's new board chairman, said: "I think it's fair to say the talks are progressing."

As the orchestra's management aims to balance a budget after a string of annual deficits, negotiating points may include the orchestra's size and the length of its season - factors that can affect the BSO's reputation and ability to attract and retain talent.

A positive outcome would certainly fit the national trend - in recent days, musicians of the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra and Indianapolis Symphony have ratified contracts, all including raises.

The BSO has a lot riding on the talks, with a new era about to begin with music director-designate Marin Alsop, and with two concert venues, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, to fill.

Asked for an update on the talks and the main issues being addressed, BSO public relations director Eileen Andrews Jackson said that the "negotiations are progressing," but "we decline to comment on the details of those discussions or speculate on possible outcomes at this time."

BSO interim president and chief executive director W. Gar Richlin has vowed to balance this year's $24 million budget. (The orchestra's accumulated deficit of about $16 million is being retired using endowment funds.)

It would be difficult to balance the budget without targeting the BSO's largest annual expense items - musician salaries and benefits. Before the BSO negotiations began, Richlin did not rule out changes in orchestra size or weeks of service, actions that could change the bottom line considerably.

The BSO's personnel, which numbered 96 a few years ago, has slipped to about 90, with some members on disability and some vacancies left unfilled to save money. Currently, it's one of 17 orchestras in the U.S., from the Boston Symphony to the Utah Symphony, with 52-week contracts.

"I'm not bothered whether the total number of players is 96 or 89," Carney said. "British orchestras usually get by with 89. But going below that is too low."

Carney views 52 weeks of service as one of the key elements that makes an orchestra "major."

"I came to Baltimore to work with a 52-week orchestra with a full complement of players," he said. "I think Marin wants to be music director of a major symphony orchestra, and I want to be concertmaster of a major symphony orchestra. I think 52 weeks is absolutely imperative."

Carney is not directly involved in the negotiations. His own multiyear contract is separate from the orchestra's and is not due to expire this season. But the outcome of the negotiations could affect his relationship with the BSO.

"If there is a labor stoppage, it would put me in a really awkward position between players and management, and it might make me look elsewhere for the short term," Carney said. "If there were a long stoppage, all bets would be off."

Carney, who did a stint as guest concertmaster with the Seattle Symphony in June, was offered the job there. "I told them thank you, but no thank you," he said. "I did say I would agree to keep the offer open until the contract negotiations are settled here."

Carney said he informed Alsop of his guest appearance in Seattle. "But I told Marin that my commitment is completely to the Baltimore Symphony," Carney said. "My life and my heart are with this organization."

Talks could continue past Saturday's deadline. The first rehearsal for the 2006-2007 season is scheduled Sept. 26.

"I believe the musicians are in a real dialogue with Gar now," Carney said. "That doesn't mean that they will accept everything put on the table, but my impression is that things are going well."

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