The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Thursday that it is eliminating this year’s summer programming.
Seven months after putting forth a contract proposal to musicians that would cut the season from 52 to 40 weeks a year, the orchestra said it was advancing aggressively in that direction, first by canceling its promising New Music Festival, a pet project of Music Director Marin Alsop that this year was to celebrate female composers, as well as much of the popular summer programming, including a concert with Leslie Odom Jr., live accompaniment to “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and the annual Fourth of July concert.
The decision comes just a little over a month after the summer season was announced and only six days after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) approved a bill providing $3.2 million in state funding for the orchestra, the result of a request by a musician-led consortium for state aid.
In its announcement, the orchestra cited $16 million in losses over the past decade.
“If the BSO is going to survive,” said orchestra president and chief executive Peter Kjome, “our business model needs to change.”
“Legislation passed this session in Annapolis sought to provide some immediate funding to address short-term financial issues,” the statement said. But, it continued, “the legislation did not fully address the long-term, systemic issues or reform the BSO business model.”
The orchestra’s musicians have been playing without a contract since Sept. 9, with the proposed cuts to the season the major issue in the stalled negotiations. The players were blindsided by Thursday’s announcement, said Greg Mulligan, a first violinist and co-chairman of the orchestra committee that represents the players in negotiations.
“We’re very disappointed,” he said. “After the citizens of Maryland and the legislature and governor advocated for us by eventually passing the bill, we cannot understand why they’re taking this action.”
The next bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday. Mulligan said that at a hastily convened meeting Thursday, the players asked management to put off the announcement until after that session but that management declined.
Players see the threat as existential. “When you change an orchestra from 52 weeks to 40, and cut pay by that much, it’s going to change the kind of players who come here,” Brian Prechtl, a percussionist and the other chairman of the orchestra committee, said in a conversation last fall about the ongoing contract negotiations. “Some great players will leave.”
Baltimore’s situation epitomizes the basic conflict that has marked orchestral labor struggles across the country: musicians’ claims to a fair and regular salary for a highly skilled job against the decrease in demand for concerts. This season, Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians staged a strike for almost seven weeks, the longest in the orchestra’s history, over proposed changes to their pension plans, which ultimately went through largely as management had proposed. The Minnesota Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra have both emerged remarkably rejuvenated after long and bitter labor disputes — in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, not a strike but a lockout.
The BSO, which is based in a city that is not wealthy and has no great depth of industry to provide corporate funding, has long struggled financially. (The Cleveland Orchestra, faced with a similar predicament, has introduced an annual residency in Florida, enabling it to tap into a second donor base.) In 2009 and 2010, the BSO musicians agreed to voluntary salary reductions, which they had earned back by 2016. For the past two years, they have played on one-year extensions of the previous contract; the second of those expired in September.
“As long as they pay us, we’re going to play,” Mulligan said. “They’ve said they’re going to pay us through concerts on June 16, and after that they’re not going to pay us. It’s not going to be a strike; it’s going to be lockout.”