Saving the BSO

Our view: Tough times force players to take big pay cuts if the orchestra is to survive

March 26, 2010

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra put the best possible face on a dire situation when it announced Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the musicians that will allow it to continue as one of only 17 U.S. orchestras that perform 52 weeks a year.

The good news of the BSO's survival, however, was tempered by the fact that it was able to avert catastrophe only after the players agreed to accept a 17 percent cut in pay and benefits, a sacrifice that virtually wiped out all the gains they had made during the last decade. Moreover, 16 vacant seats among the musicians' ranks will remain unfilled.

The BSO has been hard hit by the recession. Revenue from ticket sales, corporate contributions, private gifts and endowment income are all down. Like nonprofit arts groups across the city and state, the symphony has had to slash staff, freeze hiring and cut back in ways large and small just to make ends meet.

None of it has been easy, and this week's announcement of a pay cut for musicians is only the most drastic development in what has been a very difficult year for the orchestra. It's even more poignant in the BSO's case because its musicians, virtually alone among major players' unions in the country, have gone out of their way to play their part in keeping the orchestra solvent - and it still wasn't enough.

Last year, for example, the players voluntarily - before management even asked - gave back roughly $1 million in pay raises and other previously negotiated benefits. Their only caveat was that the money be used to establish a challenge grant aimed at encouraging private and corporate donors to give more generously. The players' novel scheme helped the orchestra raise $750,000 in additional contributions, but the sea of red ink continued to widen.

Despite serious problems that remain, however, we're heartened by the fact that the orchestra has, at least for the present, shown no sign of being in danger of a collapse like the one that forced the Baltimore Opera Company into bankruptcy last year. The BSO managed to keep its budget balanced in all but one of the last three years, and it wisely retained a large enough cash reserve to pay off a projected $5.6 million deficit this year. Moreover, orchestra officials expect to balance the budget next year, and the BSO still has a $45 million endowment that should see it through any unforeseen future crises.

The BSO is one of the crown jewels of Baltimore's cultural firmament, a world-class musical organization that has grown in stature under the leadership of a succession of inspired conductors and reached new artistic heights under present Music Director Marin Alsop. Last year the orchestra and Ms. Also released a critically acclaimed recording of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" that earned a Grammy nomination for best classical album. In 2008, the BSO recorded Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," and "Symphonic Variations," which the BBC Music Magazine nominated for best new classical CD of the year. Whatever the orchestra's financial troubles, they have detracted not a whit from its musical genius.

In addition to the tremendous new energy and excitement Ms. Alsop has brought to the orchestra's concert schedule, she has personally contributed generously to efforts to re-establish it on a firm financial footing. We hope this latest agreement between the orchestra and its musicians will ultimately ensure that great music continues to flourish in Baltimore for generations to come.

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