Well, it’s about to happen again, but this time in the bright light of day. What has long been hailed as Baltimore’s “other major league team” is about to risk losing its major-league status. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Board of Directors, of which I was a member until this past June, has decided that Baltimore and Maryland can no longer afford a major league symphony orchestra, given what are real and persistent financial challenges. It is proposing cutting the season by 12 weeks.
This is the orchestra that Yo-Yo Ma claims to have grown-up with. It is a renowned ensemble that has enticed the world’s legendary classical artists, performing the great symphonic repertoire while debuting new works by 20th- and 21st-century composers. It is an orchestra with a relentless commitment to innovative youth and family concerts and enriching educational concert experiences. And it is the orchestra with which legendary pianist Leon Fleisher, at the vibrant age of 90, performed Mozart recently to a full and adoring house.
The presumption is that no one would notice the difference. We would still have live classical music, pops concerts, education and family concerts. But make no mistake, this would no longer be the world-class Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that has achieved international acclaim in its 102 years of existence as one of the world’s most important symphony orchestras, the winner of numerous Grammy Awards and Grammy nominations,.
Of the about 1,800 orchestras in the United States, there are fewer than 20 full-time, 52-week orchestras with budgets in excess of $20 million. You can guess where the very best players go. Baltimore already has the fewest number of musicians and the lowest base pay when compared to nine peer orchestras. The BSO board rationalized its intentions by citing the need to “right-size” the orchestra with today’s budget realities. This, despite a sizable endowment of more than $70 million that was solicited primarily for the purpose of preserving this great ensemble.
The question we must ask and answer is, “Can Baltimore afford to lose its major league symphony orchestra?”
I served as the BSO’s vice president for public relations and community affairs for seven. years. I offer the following as a more promising and ambitious path forward:
An Experience Reimagined: Even classical music aficionados can find the experience challenging. It’s possible and necessary to consider alternatives to what is now a centuries-old formula: overture, concerto, intermission, symphony. It’s a long sit and a lot of music on a Friday evening after a long week. Let’s be more imaginative. Millennials want an experience that’s interactive. So do many of us. There are plenty of other options for performing the great symphonic repertoire but in a more engaging, interactive way. Less can be more, particularly if enhanced with multi-media creativity, complementary visual elements and context. And please, let’s harness the power of those digital devices that everyone is scolded to turn off. Let your friends, family and acquaintances know where you are and why. It’s a supremely beautiful and unique live experience, worth repeating again and again.
An Expanded Commitment to Community Engagement: From its beginnings as a municipal orchestra, the BSO has maintained a deep commitment to the community beyond the doors of its hallowed concert hall. The musicians have performed in churches, synagogues, schools, community centers, parks and on city sidewalks. Let’s have much more of that, and in communities across the state that are willing to pay for access to a truly great orchestral experience. This is Baltimore’s and Maryland’s premier symphony orchestra. Let’s require concerts at the Inner Harbor and concerts at churches, in universities and high schools, neighborhoods and other venues. Let’s reinforce the ties of the BSO to the community and in ways that expose a new generation to its transforming experiences. Donors and sponsors will follow.
A Renewed Commitment of the Community. The BSO’s 11th music director, the great Yuri Temirkanov, often remarked that a society is defined by two things: how it cares for its children and by its commitment to culture and the arts. Baltimore is challenged on very critical fronts that claim a higher priority in the city’s budget than even its esteemed cultural and artistic institutions. And yet, there are ample private resources in our community -- in Montgomery County and across our state -- that could help sustain a major symphony orchestra. Corporations (large and small), individuals, institutions, associations and foundations. Think partnerships, think of the innumerable options to claim mutual benefit, think about creating a legacy of underwriting the attendance of school children and financially challenged families and communities, high school and college students, those for whom “a night at the symphony” seems out of reach and unimaginable, but for whom it may well prove a life-changing experience and must be accessible.
The Music Center at Strathmore: Envisioned more than a dozen years ago by then-Chairman Calman J. “Buddy Zamoiski and then-BSO President John Gidwitz, first as a summer home, the Music Center at Strathmore was built entirely with public funding and primarily for the BSO. Yet, in these intervening years, the BSO has done little to harvest the potential that a second home in one of the nation’s most affluent counties offers. No other American symphony orchestra has such an advantage. Performing at least once a week at Strathmore, the BSO receives annual revenue of roughly $1.5 million. This is without any serious fundraising or endowment campaign effort, and without the required investment of staff and essential resources to realize what was envisioned when that superlative concert hall 40 minutes from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was established. BSO leaders have failed to monetize the opportunity that this second home offers for the BSO. It’s not too late. The demographics of Montgomery County have only improved for the BSO’s prospects, but exploiting the possibilities requires leadership, vision, collaboration and resolve.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s continuance is not guaranteed. It depends on concert-goers, benefactors and sponsors every year. It must continually assert its relevance and impact, making clear what’s at stake and why financial support is justified. With more than 130 concerts annually, its consistent high artistic achievement and relentless community service, the BSO has made its case. It is now for us to state ours. Let’s resolve to preserve and perpetuate the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. To squander our century-long investment in this, our state’s winningest major league team, would be an irreversible travesty and it would strike a chord of defeat and disharmony for years to come.