Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Musicians Volunteer for Pay Concessions

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

In today's economic climate, it's become almost routine for orchestras and opera companies to cut staff and budgets. But it's far from routine for an orchestra's musicians to volunteer a cut of their own accord. Yesterday, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced that its players had unanimously agreed to forgo wage and pension rate increases and other promised elements of their 2009-10 contract packages, taking an 8 percent cut to make what amounts to a $1 million donation to the orchestra.

The donation was presented in the form of a challenge grant. The initiative "Music Matters: Play Your Part" will attempt to raise $2 million from the public. The effort has already raised $675,000, including $50,000 from the orchestra's music director, Marin Alsop.

It's a remarkable show of solidarity from an orchestra that used to be famous for its acerbic relations with management. "We have a management that treats us as an equal partner," says Laurie Sokoloff, a piccolo player who is the chair of the players' committee. "With that comes responsibility." Sokoloff has been in the orchestra for 40 years and knows very well that it wasn't always like this. "We used to go on strike every other contract," says Sokoloff, who adds: "Those days are over for us." She says that it took remarkably little convincing to get players on board with the plan, because of the trust that the current administration has created with its musicians.

Given financial conditions, some kind of cut was probably inevitable. "It was only a matter of time until we sat down with the orchestra" to discuss cutbacks, says Paul Meecham, the BSO's president and chief executive. The orchestra's endowment has fallen to $33 million, he said, scarcely above the organization's annual $28 million operating budget. This year, the orchestra has already cut costs by $1 million, reducing its administrative staff and, among other things, changing scheduled concerts of Mahler's Sixth Symphony to the less costly Mahler Ninth.

But the players' gesture "came as a wonderful surprise," Meecham says. Neither he nor Sokoloff has ever heard of orchestra players doing such a thing.

"It will help reduce the deficit for this year," Meecham says. But, "There's no way that we can balance our budget."

"The primary purpose is to help balance our budget for next year," Meecham adds. But that will be difficult, because of not only the low endowment but also the reductions in long-standing grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the City of Baltimore.

Still, the musicians' action has helped turn financial hardship into a feel-good story.

"What I find the most interesting is the mood in the orchestra," Sokoloff says. "Whereas other orchestras are taking big hits that are imposed or have to happen and the players are feeling victimized, because we've done something proactive . . . we're feeling pretty good."

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