Changes leave BSO in an upbeat mood

Orchestra poised for resurgence after major shake-up at the top

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

A year ago, the sounds backstage at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were almost dirgelike: The organization was saddled with a debt approaching $16 million, still bruised by a public fight with musicians over the appointment of a new music director and weakened by a talent drain among the staff and major board members.

After a complete sweep of top management in recent months, and with music director-designate Marin Alsop poised to jolt the scene when she leads her first concerts of the season next month, the organization seems to be on an upswing.

"Finally we have the right formula," says longtime BSO musician Jane Marvine, head of the players committee. "All the ingredients are in place. There's a very, very good atmosphere now. We all want and value the same things."

That mood got even sweeter last week with the announcement of a $1 million challenge grant - dollar for dollar - from the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds.

If the initiative succeeds, the BSO's budget will get a welcome $2 million boost in contributed income, although that would still leave plenty of challenges.

The BSO's current annual operating budget of $25 million is dependent, in roughly equal measures, on earned income - ticket sales, hall rentals and the like - and contributed income from private, corporate and government sources.

The challenges of selling those tickets and raising those donations are no less daunting than in past years, of course. But the Meyerhoff Family fundraising initiative and the improved morale at the BSO should make the job a little easier now, as well as put a positive light on the regime change at the BSO, two months into Paul Meecham's tenure as president and chief executive officer, and less than six months into Michael Bronfein's term as board chairman.

"We're getting our house in order," Bronfein says. "We are rebuilding credibility." Meecham is likewise upbeat: "I have a sense that a turnaround has begun."

Starting in January, with the departure of James Glicker as president after 18 months, the situation began to shift.

Glicker had been a surprise, outside-the-box choice for president with no previous orchestral experience. The board chairman who hired him, Philip English, decided not to seek a second term and was succeeded in June by Bronfein.

The board took strong action last spring to eliminate the accumulated debt, using a portion of a $90 million endowment. And the effectiveness of the administration began to improve with interim President W. Gar Richlin, so much so that a new contract with the musicians was negotiated in September (a strike had been widely feared).

The brief Glicker era was "an experiment that failed," Bronfein says. "But there's nothing wrong with experimenting." (Glicker could not be reached this week for comment, but at the time he resigned, he said, "I felt I got a lot done - turning around the orchestra's earned income, finding a new music director, increasing community involvement with the BSO.")

When a search committee of board members and musicians was formed to seek Glicker's successor, no one was in an experimental mood.

"We wanted somebody who was an insider, a total professional who knew the business," Marvine says, "someone who had great personal skills and leadership skills, and who could be the face of the orchestra to the community. We absolutely got that person."

The soft-spoken, affable Meecham, 49, has compiled an impressive resume.

Born in Bath, England, he studied violin and piano through his college years before taking a non-performance career path.

He has handled marketing for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; managed the London Sinfonietta (a contemporary music ensemble); and served as general manager (the No. 2 administrative job) of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

Meecham moved to Baltimore with his wife and two young children from the Northwest, where he was executive director of the Seattle Symphony.

"He knows how a successful orchestra is run," Marvine says. "He just gets it all."

Emil de Cou, associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, seconds that. "He's one of the best," says de Cou, who was principal pops conductor of the San Francisco Symphony when Meecham worked there. "Paul is not just a great administrator. He really understands music and musicians. He'll do great things for Baltimore."

Meecham has set about replenishing the BSO staff. He appointed an interim vice president for development ("It may take a while to find the right person permanently"); a new orchestra personnel manager arrives shortly. Both of those pivotal positions had been vacant for months.

"And we're very actively looking for a new general manager," Meecham says of another critical, long-vacant post. "People are calling me about it, so I'm pleased about that. They know there's been a lot of change here. And I'm a fairly known quantity in this country."

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