BSO salaries take another hit

Players OK freeze for 2010-2011, 16.6% pay cut for two seasons after that

  • By the 2012-2013 season, BSO members will earn $67,600 in base pay -- essentially the same as it was in 2001. Morale took a hit during negotiations leading up to the contract.
By the 2012-2013 season, BSO members will earn $67,600 in base… (Baltimore Sun file photo )
March 26, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra agreed Thursday to take another salary hit in an effort to help the organization weather the continued effects of the recession. Players accepted a freeze for the 2010-2011 season and a 16.6 percent reduction for the two seasons after that.

"We're devastated," said Jane Marvine, an English horn player and spokeswoman for the Players' Committee. "In the last decade, two times we had great contracts that were unfulfilled. This sets us back a decade."

By the 2012-2013 season, BSO members will earn $67,600 in base pay - essentially the same as in 2001. A previous contract, which was reopened last year, would have raised base pay to about $90,000 by 2012. The base rate this season is $71,000.

In April 2009, the musicians voluntarily donated $1 million in contract concessions; in July 2009, they accepted a 12.5 percent salary reduction for the 2009-2010 season. Several cost-saving moves were likewise made on the administrative side.

"We have everything going for us," Marvine said. "The talent is on the stage and in the [administration]. We have a music director committed to expanding the orchestra as a resource for the community. We have a collaborative spirit. So it seems impossible to us that we have not been able to thrive as a major American orchestra in one of the wealthiest states and in two wealthy markets." In addition to Baltimore, the BSO regularly performs in Montgomery County.

After two balanced budgets, the orchestra's 2008-2009 season ended with a deficit of $5.6 million. That was covered by cash reserves, so the BSO is not carrying accumulated debt.

In 2006, under the previous administrative team, the debt totaled more than $20 million, which was retired by the use of endowment money. The endowment's value reached a low of $32.5 million last year, too low for the orchestra to take its annual draw (which caused about half of last year's deficit). The endowment is now valued at about $45 million.

"We have no debt, and that's the way it's going to stay," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham, who joined the organization four years ago. "It's tough love, but we can't repeat history and expect the community to rally around us again."

Added BSO music director Marin Alsop: "I'm proud to be part of an organization that has the guts to do what is necessary to maintain stability. It doesn't take guts to run deficits, which was what was going on here before."

Under terms of the new contract, musicians will contribute to health care premiums and be responsible for deductible payments that previously were paid by the organization.

"Most employers require employees to contribute to medical costs," Meecham said. "The staff have been doing this for years."

Meecham said that the "economic climate and recession proved much more prolonged than we had all hoped," and noted reductions in state, city, corporate and foundation contributions.

The BSO expects the next Baltimore City budget to take a fresh toll on the orchestra's finances. The city's grant to the BSO reached a high of $750,000 a few years ago, was cut last year to $480,000 and will be reduced to $241,000, Meecham said. "That's money we now have to find elsewhere," he added.

The orchestra's annual budget was $27.5 million for the last fiscal year, $24.7 million for the current one; next year's total will be $23.7 million.

A balanced budget for the current 2009-2010 season is projected.

Morale in the orchestra has taken a hit during the months of negotiations leading up to this week's contract. There are concerns about retaining musicians, given the salary drop.

"More players are taking auditions [elsewhere], that's for sure," said bassist Robert Barney, co-chair of the Players Committee. "Players were coming here for careers, but we may go back to being a steppingstone orchestra."

The new contract will see the BSO pay scale fall below that of several orchestras with budgets in the same range as the BSO's, including the Indianapolis Symphony ($72,800 base salary), Dallas Symphony ($77,300), Seattle Symphony ($77,500) and St. Louis Symphony ($75,000). Base pay between $110,000 and $118,000 is the norm at several major orchestras, including the National Symphony in Washington, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra.

Several orchestras have recently taken a fresh look at musicians' contracts in an effort to find cost savings, among them the Detroit Symphony, where base pay is nearly $105,000 and a deficit is looming.

"We have a long history of playing at a level far above what our contract compensates," Marvine said. "But even a decade ago we were at a full complement of 96 players. We're down 16 players, due to attrition, and now there's a freeze on hiring."

One bright spot in the BSO's new contract is the retention of full-time, 52-week status, a point of honor for the players. There are only 17 full-time American orchestras.

Alsop described the situation for the BSO players as "really heartbreaking. I could cry," she said. "I would be lying if I said the last few days have not been really hard. But at the same time, I'm proud that this is a collaborative effort. This speaks to the amazing and admirable commitment of our musicians to retain a full-time major orchestra in this city."

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