BSO agrees to 2-year contract

Several key concessions

balanced books in sight

September 16, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

Musicians at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra approved a two-year contract yesterday that includes several major concessions but preserves a full-time schedule, ensuring that music director-designate Marin Alsop's first season will begin on a harmonious note, without the threat of a strike or labor unrest.

In the contract, the BSO agreed to increase the orchestra's size by one musician, to 91 full-time players, and to maintain a full season - both factors that will help preserve the orchestra's reputation and ability to retain and recruit members. There are 17 full-time orchestras in the U.S.

The current contract expires tonight. The players made several concessions in the new deal, including agreeing to a two-week furlough in the contract's first year as well as paying a higher portion of their health care and other benefits. The musicians also agreed to give up bonus payments totaling $200,000 that they would have received for recordings and radio broadcasts.

They said they are willing to do their part to help the orchestra, which hasn't balanced its books since the 2001-2002 season.

"It seemed like our survival was at stake," said Bob Barney, a principal bass player. "The board wanted to do whatever it took to survive financially. We wanted to do whatever it took to survive artistically in such a way that we wouldn't suffer damage that we couldn't come back from."

The BSO retired its $16 million debt this year by drawing on funds from its endowment, which now stands at $62 million. A new management team also was installed this year; musicians say its members have brought a sense of energy and optimism.

"I'm especially happy that our new CEO is able to come in and not have to waste any energy solving problems from the past," Barney said. "There's a renewed commitment and renewed excitement."

The BSO's new season, which begins in two weeks, unofficially launches tonight with a black-tie gala. The new season is the first for Alsop, who officials hope will be a draw for audiences and donors. (Alsop officially begins in 2007.)

Michael Bronfein, chairman of the BSO board, said the new contract, combined with increased fundraising by board members, means the orchestra will be able to balance its budget this year.

"I can say with a high level of confidence that this contract will in fact motivate [donors] to open their wallets and resume giving at the levels we had in the past," Bronfein said.

The new contract provides no raise and a two-week furlough in its first year. In the second year, musicians will get a $60 a week raise, to $1,500. But musicians said that just as important as salary was maintaining the full-time 52-week contract and an orchestra of sufficient size to preserve the quality of its work.

"You need the same people playing together for a long time to produce the greatest artistic product," said Noah Chaves, an assistant principal violist.

A major concession, but one becoming more common for symphony orchestras, was the musicians' agreement to forgo bonus payments for electronic media, such as recordings.

"We view our ability to get our sound out there as part of really increasing our brand, improving our brand, which all goes to a much healthier and better orchestra for the future," said W. Gar Richlin, the BSO's interim president and CEO.

Among other concessions in the contract, musicians agreed to relax work rules that had limited the number of performances at the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County. The new deal allows for more concerts at Strathmore, including Sunday matinees, as well as for double daily performances at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall of the Holiday Spectacular.

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