Great performances

September 19, 2006

The contract negotiations between the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its musicians have ended on the right note - with a two-year agreement that upholds the artistic quality and integrity of the orchestra while allowing management to live within its means and rebuild its fundraising network.

The musicians made concessions - they will get no raise in the first year of the contract and have given up two weeks of pay as well. But in exchange, management retained a full-season schedule - a critical measure of the orchestra's national standing - and it agreed to restore positions and salary increases that musicians sacrificed in the past. The new contract strikes us as a concerted and joint effort by both sides to put the organization's needs first so that the BSO will be playing for audiences here and abroad for the foreseeable future.

Considering the BSO's recent financial struggles, the negotiations could have resulted in a very different orchestra. The easiest way to cut costs would have been to scale back its 52-week season and reduce the number of musicians. Such cuts would have relegated the BSO to second-tier status, when it has demonstrated its ability to perform on par with the country's first-rate orchestras.

The interim general manager, W. Gar Richlin, and new board chairman, Michael Bronfein, smartly recognized that making such moves would undercut the BSO's appeal to donors and its audiences and its ability to secure its future. In other words, it would diminish the very product they need to sell.

Throughout its 90-year history, the BSO has evolved from a regional orchestra that charged 15 cents a ticket and performed at the local (and shabby) opera house to a nationally recognized classical tour de force with its own symphony hall and a who's who of guest artists on its roster. Financial problems had threatened to lessen its presence and legacy. And there were worries that a musicians' strike would plunge the BSO into worse shape.

But musicians and management have compromised where it mattered, so that the BSO's overall bottom line could be reinforced and its artistic potential enhanced. The BSO's challenge for the next year will be to strengthen its financial base, draw old and new patrons, expand its audience and perform exceptional music at its two venues.

A healthier, better BSO means an enriched cultural life in Maryland for years to come.

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