BSO's dedicated musicians, Richlin instrumental in reaching deal

Critic's Corner//Music

Music column

September 19, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

The sighs of relief in Baltimore on Friday could probably be heard as far away as Canada. The successful conclusion of negotiations that led to a new, two-year contract for musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ends months of speculation and worry, and should help clear the way to a positive era.

The result confirms two things above all else. One, the BSO musicians couldn't be more dedicated; time and again, they have been willing to forgo an awful lot for themselves in an effort to keep the big picture burning brightly. And, two, W. Gar Richlin, the personable and straight-talking businessman on the orchestra's board who agreed to step in as interim president and CEO last winter, was exactly the right person at the right time.

"This organization owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Gar," says new BSO board chairman Michael Bronfein. "I think it's fair to say that he is leaving the orchestra in far better condition than he found it."

In January, bookmakers would have offered terrible odds on the outcome of contract talks. At that time, BSO management was still in the hands of three people who had lost the full confidence of musicians -- president/CEO James Glicker, board chairman Philip English and general manager Karen Swanson.

That trio may have had the noblest of intentions, but their tenure, their way of doing things, eroded a morale already sagging from years of financial uncertainty at the organization and contract concessions by the players.

Morale wasn't helped in the summer of 2005 by management's determination to appoint Marin Alsop as the next music director, regardless of any reservations from players.

Musicians spend an awful lot of time being told what to do onstage. Understandably, they like to be listened to offstage, treated as full partners in the complex business of sustaining an orchestra. They have little patience for lip service, which seems to be what they often got.

Much of the fallout from that difficult summer dissipated as the 2005-2006 season got under way. The musicians welcomed Alsop warmly in January for her first podium appearance since being named Yuri Temirkanov's successor. (She officially assumes the music director title in the 2007-2008 season, but, as music director designate, she is already deeply involved in the BSO and its about-to-open season.)

While the orchestra and Alsop reconnected smoothly, there was no January thaw in musician-management relations -- until the unexpected resignation of Glicker, shortly after Alsop's concerts that month with the BSO.

Enter Richlin. Virtually overnight, attitudes started changing, moods started brightening. The musicians trusted him from the start. "He was really listening to them," BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney says. "That was something very new. Gar has been a real godsend to us."

In short order, a plan was undertaken to reapportion endowment funds to wipe out a debt that was pushing $16 million and provide a level fiscal field for the 2006-2007 season. By April, a level management field emerged, too, when, on the same day, word came that English and Swanson would leave their positions by June.

With Richlin now the point man for management, this meant that the musicians would be negotiating a new contract in a far more upbeat mood than had been expected. That the contract was ratified on time and, by all appearances, amicably, says a great deal.

Richlin, a Baltimore attorney and principal of a management advisory firm, can turn over the reins to incoming president Paul Meecham next month with the outlook for the BSO better than it has been in a long time.

Everything isn't suddenly ideal, of course. The new contract leaves the players no better off than they were before. They never saw the catch-up-to-the-competition raises negotiated way back in 2000, because, midway through, that contract had to be reopened and salaries frozen when the deficit era hit hard.

The two-year deal they just accepted means that the musicians not only start with the same weekly base pay they had with the last contract ($1,440) for the first year, but also take an unpaid, two-week furlough and start paying more of their health care costs.

And, with a tiny pay increase in the second year (to $1,500), they still won't really be ahead at the end of the contract. (Some players, especially those in principal positions, receive much more than the base pay.)

But, as Julia Kirchhausen, vice president of communications for the American Symphony Orchestra League, told the Sun's Stephen Kiehl after the contract ratification, the deal should help to put musicians, donors and the public at ease. "When you don't have to worry about the day-to-day survival and you can concentrate on the art and moving forward, it's a very different mindset than trying to get out of a hole," she said.

The new management team is taking shape promisingly. Bronfein is quite a dynamo. Meecham, lately of the Seattle Symphony, is an experienced and respected orchestra administrator. (The general manager post isn't yet filled.)

And, Alsop, as energetic and inventive as they come in this business, is about to draw a new jolt of international attention to the orchestra.

But all of the positive developments, all of the enticing potential will fade quickly if there isn't increased concert attendance and financial contributions. The musicians have once more gone the extra mile to keep a valuable orchestra alive. It's now up to the board and to the community to make it thrive.

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