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Baltimore Symphony reaches new contract agreement with musicians

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; C02

Orchestras have been battered by the financial crisis, and the Baltimore Symphony has become a poster child for the economic downturn. On Thursday, it announced that it had reached a new contract agreement with its musicians through 2013 -- one that will ultimately reduce the musicians' base salary by 17 percent from the 2008-2009 level.

"This contract takes us back over a decade in wages," said Jane Marvine, an English horn player with the BSO and the spokeswoman for the players' committee. "We're devastated." In the 2008-2009 season, the players' base salary was $81,000. This season, it was down to $71,000; by the end of this new contract, it will be $67,000.

The cutbacks also include a 16.5 percent reduction in health insurance costs through employee contributions to premiums and deductible payments. Positions that are currently vacant in the orchestra will not be filled. Usually, the orchestra has 96 players; only 85 of those positions are occupied.

Despite concessions from the musicians over the past two seasons -- including voluntary pay cuts amounting to $1 million -- the orchestra had a deficit of $5.6 million in the past fiscal year. This was the result of low ticket sales, low donations and a financial crisis that delivered a grave hit to the endowment.

"We really focused on ensuring that we could preserve the quality of the orchestra," said Paul Meecham, the orchestra's president and chief executive. "Ideas to shorten the season or anything else like that, we ruled out just because we felt they would have a greater impact."

There's reason for concern about whether Baltimore can maintain its competitive status with other, better-paid orchestras. The base salary for players at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, less than an hour away, is about $118,000, according to an NSO spokeswoman.

"Baltimore has traditionally been struggling to maintain competitive salaries," Marvine said. "It's always been a struggle to be able to find the level of player that we're looking for, and now it will be harder."

The BSO also announced an experimental Fellows program that would allow exceptionally talented pre-professional musicians -- conservatory students and recent graduates -- to play with and be mentored by the orchestra and, on a temporary basis, to fill some of those empty orchestra seats. The orchestra is actively seeking new revenue streams, as well. This summer, a program called the BSO Academy will allow amateur musicians to play alongside BSO musicians in coaching sessions, private lessons and performances. Tuition starts at $1,650 per student.

The BSO has a long history of troubled labor relations and financial difficulties. As recently as 2006, before the arrival of the current administration, the board dipped into the endowment to pay off $22 million of accumulated debt.

The orchestra isn't alone in its difficulties; across the country, orchestras are looking for new sources of revenue and trying desperately to balance their budgets. Meecham is insistent that one-time emergency gifts and special fundraising campaigns are not a long-term solution.

"From the musicians' perspective," Marvine said, "we have a plan going forward that is financially sustainable, but we do not have a plan that is artistically sustainable.

"It takes decades to build the kind of quality that we have," she added. "We're just greatly concerned not only for our own personal lives but for the actual impact that this will have on the quality of the orchestra going forward."

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