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BSO musicians try to keep summer schedule, without the orchestra

BSO musicians picket Meyerhoff Hall on the second day of the orchestra’s lockout.
BSO musicians picket Meyerhoff Hall on the second day of the orchestra’s lockout. (Colin Sorgi)
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Fiddling while Rome burns: It’s used as an image of leaders ignoring serious problems for their own amusement. In the case of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians, though, fiddling through a crisis represents an attempt to save their orchestra.

Faced with a lockout that began June 17, weeks after management announced cancellation of the summer season, BSO musicians are trying to figure out how to pay mortgages, afford health insurance and make it through the summer. Some have already departed to substitute with other orchestras — Ivan Stefanovic, the associate principal second violin, left Monday morning for the Atlanta Symphony. But most are staying here and planning to perform at the annual Independence Day event July 3 — one of the events that the BSO announced it was canceling but which Baltimore County is going ahead with anyway.

BSO locks out its musicians.

The orchestra members were going to pitch in free, but a grant from the Music Performance Trust Fund, an independent public service organization, and the Film Funds, will make it possible for them to be paid. The county is arranging the fireworks, food vendors, security and parking — using money that would otherwise have gone to the BSO.

“We were in a position to use existing funding through a grant we provide the BSO,” said T.J. Smith, the press secretary for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. “Part of the grant is the Independence Day extravaganza. Considering that’s not happening, we were able to use the funding that already existed to put on a portion of it.”

The concert will go off “essentially as planned,” Smith said, though “there are a few logistical things that will be different.” It will also be on a slightly smaller scale, with an audience of about 5,000.

The Independence Day concert is usually a moneymaker for the orchestra, says Brian Prechtl, a percussionist and member of the orchestra committee. This year, for the first time, it will be free to the public, though it remains a ticketed event. The free tickets were all snapped up last week.

The musicians are trying to maintain continuity in other ways. The popular Academy Week, which allows amateur musicians to play side by side with orchestra players, was among the canceled events, but players are trying to continue it in some modified form, emphasizing mainly chamber music, between July 12 and 21.

What the musicians aren’t trying to replace are some of the summer’s other big events, including a showing of a Harry Potter film with live orchestral accompaniment, and a concert with the popular Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr. Both of these concerts are the kinds of things that orchestras often put on to expand their audience base and make money.

I used to think the ‘Star Wars’ score was beneath me. I was wrong.

Many of the locked-out musicians are or will be applying for unemployment. “It’s very hard to get a summer festival gig on short notice,” Prechtl said. Most musicians cling to a prized summer festival post, which allows them to work in beautiful surroundings; Prechtl has been playing with the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming for 27 years.

Orchestras do, however, sometimes need a substitute at short notice, and many are eager to help out the Baltimore musicians with work. The Seattle Symphony called Prechtl asking about violists who might be available.

Prechtl, for his part, has had to turn down paying work, because his position as players’ committee spokesman is keeping him so busy during the lockout. All members of the committee, he says, feel they have a commitment to the players and shouldn’t leave until things are more settled.

For some musicians, there’s a more immediate logistical problem: Their larger instruments are inside Meyerhoff Hall, which the orchestra is locked out of, and they have no way to get them out for the concert — nor is there a crew available to move them. Musicians will have to use their personal instruments, which in Prechtl’s case include timpani and a bass drum.

“We might have to rent a truck,” he said.

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