More than a month before their two-year contract expires, musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have ratified a new three-year deal that will see a total increase of 17.4 percent in base salary. By the 2010-2011 season, that base pay will be $90,012, an amount that was supposed to have been reached in 2005.
When the orchestra faced a severe budget crisis in 2003, musicians agreed to delay raises that had been part of a long-term contract. They continued to make concessions, including pay cuts for a couple of years, to help the organization through hard times. Base pay under the current two-year contract is $76,700.
Each year of the new contract, which goes into effect Sept. 14, offers a raise of about 5.5 percent. The contract also calls for four vacancies in the BSO to be filled by the third year, bringing the number of players to 96; those vacancies have been open for several years because of financial constraints.
The quick, amicable contract settlement "sends a signal to the community that we're having a lot of success at the BSO," says Jane Marvine, head of the BSO players' committee. "The contract does not by any means put us in the place we need to be, but it's a step in the right direction."
Even at the end of the new contract, the BSO's base salary will be less than that at several comparable orchestras, Marvine says. Base pay at the Minnesota Orchestra and Cincinnati Symphony, for example, already exceeds $90,000. The figure at the National Symphony is more than $100,000.
Still, the fact that a three-year deal, with any raises, could be negotiated at the BSO, well in advance of deadline, is remarkable, given the orchestra's recent history of debt and internal strife.
"There was will on both sides," says BSO President and Chief Executive Paul Meecham, reached by phone yesterday in France, where he just started his vacation. "And I knew that the musicians don't negotiate during their vacation [in August], so it made sense to get everything done beforehand."
Marvine credits Meecham with "an outstanding job of getting a winning scenario for the whole organization. His leadership was key," she says. "There's no question that there's a new level of appreciation and respect for the musicians."
Meecham expects the BSO to balance its annual budget of about $25 million by the time the fiscal year ends Aug. 31. That would make it two balanced budgets in a row, after years of deficits. There has been some decrease in corporate and foundation giving, he says, a reflection of the downturn of the economy, but he's optimistic about staying in the black.
That optimism extends to the prospects of fulfilling the new contract. "Several factors give us the confidence that we can make this," Meecham says. "The strong ticket sales for Marin Alsop's first season as music director [2007-2008] give us encouragement that we will continue to see increases. And the number of new subscribers provides us with a broad new pool of potential donors."
Box-office figures released yesterday reveal grounds for an upbeat assessment.
Subscription revenues are up 20 percent over last season. Average attendance at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for 2008-2009 is predicted to hit 74 percent, up from 70 percent last season. At the Music Center at Strathmore, it is predicted to hit 83 percent, up from 80 percent.
The Soulful Symphony, an orchestra and chorus affiliated with the BSO, will focus on song and the spoken word during its 2008-2009 season at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Music Center at Strathmore.
Founding artistic director Darin Atwater will lead three of the four programs, including the season-opener in October, which reprises last season's "Say Amen Somebody," a celebration of gospel music. The guest artist will be Grammy-winning musician Donnie McClurkin.
Vocal works, from spirituals to opera arias, will be performed in April. And the "Sounds of Motown" closes the season in May.
Also included in the concert series will be the State of Maryland's 23rd annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in January. BSO music director Marin Alsop will conduct this concert.
For tickets, call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.