Faced with a deficit at home and unable to sell tickets for an ambitious new schedule in Montgomery County, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has cut back on this year's season at the Music Center at Strathmore. The orchestra began contacting ticket buyers last week about the scrubbed events, including a series of three Saturday family concerts; two performances of Handel's holiday favorite, "Messiah"; a midday chamber orchestra program; several educational concerts; and a "Soulful Symphony" concert aimed at African American audiences. The orchestra's decision, reported yesterday in the Baltimore Business Journal, means scaling back to 42 events at Strathmore from a projected 53, with most of the cuts coming in educational and community oriented concerts.
"Nobody is happy about this outcome," said Michael Mael, vice president for the BSO's operation at Strathmore. "In a perfect world, we would have done this before the concerts were announced."
The BSO, a founding partner of the new county-owned concert venue, opened Strathmore on Feb. 5. Sales were strong for its classical programs last spring, prompting the orchestra to plan a more extensive schedule this season. But while the orchestra's core classical concerts are attracting an audience and will continue as planned, several new series haven't mustered support yet.
"The response was just fantastic," Mael said about the orchestra's first months in its suburban home away from home. "It exceeded our wildest dreams, and based on what we saw, we were very ambitious in rolling out new series this year."
But poor attendance at some events earlier this season, and low projected ticket sales for events later on, prompted the orchestra to scale back. Mael said the group stood to lose $10,000 to $50,000 a night for concerts that weren't selling well. The orchestra reported a $3.2 million deficit in the 2003-2004 season (the last one for which numbers have been released) and is expected to report a deficit for 2004-2005.
Eliot Pfanstiehl, president and CEO of Strathmore, says the hall won't be hurt by the orchestra's change in plans. The newly open dates are already being claimed for corporate and nonprofit events, product releases and other private functions.
"It's amazing who wants to rent a 2,000-seat hall in the suburbs," Pfanstiehl said. If the BSO is able to build a new audience for a more aggressive series in the future, Strathmore will be open to it, he said.
"We look forward to having the BSO for a long time, and we have no doubt that they're going to do very well here," Pfanstiehl said.