Seven Suggestions for the Baltimore Symphony…That Aren’t About Money

In January 2008, at the height of a Writers’ Guild of America strike, I watched a moment of television that I will never forget.

That moment came during a landmark episode of The Colbert Report, the long-running show in which Stephen Colbert played a satirical caricature of an idiotic cable news pundit. This particular episode discussed how Stephen’s father, Dr. James Colbert, had just been hired as a hospital administrator when he became involved with negotiating an end to the infamous 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. During that time, Dr. Colbert worked – successfully! – with activist Andrew Young to reach an agreement. Nearly forty years later, in the shadow of the WGA strike, Stephen interviewed Young in-character on his show. Video:

http://www.cc.com/video-clips/xw3v9i/the-colbert-report-andrew-young

The whole interview is interesting (if dated in certain ways…), but a couple of Young’s quotes lodged their way into my brain and have stayed there for over a decade.

“I was mayor of Atlanta and cities all over America were striking,” he said. “But a Teamster union organizer told me, ‘Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.'” Young also said, “What your father did was be reasonable, and be humble.”

Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.

Be reasonable, and be humble.

Lately much of the discourse surrounding the ongoing Baltimore Symphony lockout has centered around money: shaming of musicians for wanting to be paid a certain amount of money, concerns that money has been spent or distributed unwisely, tut-tutting at donors for not giving more money. And don’t get me wrong: God only knows, money is important! An orchestra can’t function without money, and a lot of it. The role of money should not, and cannot, be ignored here. Everyone, keep following the money!

But! If the Baltimore Symphony administration focuses on money and the bottom line at the cost of everything else – ignoring politicians’ and donors’ and customers’ and citizens’ concerns over governance in the process – that orchestra’s future will be a small and bleak one.

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The Baltimore Symphony: Burning Gifts and Burning GIFs

As everyone knows, our world is on fire. Sometimes literally, but always figuratively.

The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, has settled upon a metaphor to evoke the broiling ever-present destruction:

The dumpster fire.

The scholarly website KnowYourMeme.com offers the following definition of a “dumpster fire”:

a pejorative term used to describe something as a spectacular failure or disaster, in a similar vein to other colloquial terms like “trainwreck” or “sh*tshow.”

Merriam-Webster is more to the point:

an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence : DISASTER

Needless to say, the Baltimore Symphony lockout is a dumpster fire.

A new vague proposal (threat?) floated in the Baltimore Sun on July 10th is, to my eyes, a potential game-changer. And not just for Baltimore, either: for managements, musicians, donors, and patrons all over the United States.

If what Chris Bartlett, the chair of the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, proposes in this article comes to pass, a philanthropic Rubicon will have been crossed: a blazing dumpster fire fueled. And across that river, and beneath that trash, lay myriads of unsettling, unnerving unknowns.

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The Baltimore Symphony: Three Strikes And You’re Out

The Baltimore Symphony locked out its musicians as of 12:01 AM on Monday, June 17th.

If you’re fuzzy as to the definition of a lockout (as I was seven [!] years ago when I first started writing about orchestral labor disputes), here’s the dictionary definition.

A lockout is:

the withholding of employment by an employer and the whole or partial closing of the business establishment in order to gain concessions from or resist demands of employees

Merriam Webster dictionary

I want to preface the rest of this with my opinion. To my mind, a lockout is the most horrifying, corrosive form of labor dispute. It does not pave the way to a stronger, healthier organization. It is symptomatic of breakdown. Thought of charitably, it is an admission of failure: a confession of incompetence. Thought of less charitably, it is a form of arson meant to quickly transform an organization, or to score political or social points.

That interpretation rings especially true when a lockout happens at an orchestra. An orchestra’s reason for being isn’t to make money, but rather to improve the lives of citizens. The music is the product. Therefore, you cannot lock out an orchestra without simultaneously locking out audiences, the entire justification for the organization’s existence. This simple fact makes orchestral lockouts especially serious and grave.

Because a lockout is such an unspeakably extreme last resort, it is the responsibility of any management team to broadcast the severity of the situation calmly and consistently over a period of years, and then, more importantly, to respect stakeholders and to search tirelessly for equal partners to help fix problems with.

Based on the facts currently in the public domain, that is not the path that the Baltimore Symphony chose to follow. They’ve snubbed the (to my eyes) reasonable requests of Save Our BSO, a group of audience advocates, and many of the Baltimore musicians found out about the upcoming lockout via social media rather than in-person. Obviously, these stakeholders are not being respected and treated as the equal partners that they are.

On June 14th, the Baltimore Sun ran an article with a hugely alarming headline: The BSO’s financial situation was much worse than most people realized, documents and interviews reveal.

The lede is an indictment in and of itself:

Until the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra canceled its summer season, few people outside the nonprofit’s administrative offices realized just how precarious its financial situation was.

my reaction to this information in gif form

Well, um. I guess this blog entry is over, then, right? Honestly, that information is all the information we need to know. It’s strike one. Based on that fact alone, the current leadership is either inept, unfit, or untrustworthy (or all three). Before they reached the cliff, they were apparently unaware of what was going down financially (how?) or unwilling to build bridges with stakeholders to problem-solve (why not?). To my mind, both possibilities are disqualifying, and they signal a need for resignations. Honestly, the Sparknotes version of this entry ends here.

But in case you want to keep going…

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A Note On the Night of the Baltimore Symphony Lockout

Tonight the Baltimore Symphony management announced its intentions to lock out its musicians on Monday, June 17th.

I wrote a Twitter thread about this and thought I’d adapt it for an entry, in case these sentiments would be helpful to anyone who isn’t on Twitter.

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Here’s a message for the Baltimore Symphony musicians and audience advocacy group Save Our BSO on the night that the Baltimore Symphony lockout begins…

These kinds of tactics have been used before, and a decent chunk of us in the classical music twittersphere and blogosphere have watched it happen (and not just in Minnesota in 2012).

Musician supporters are not fighting sheerly for the livelihoods of musicians, as important and indeed as sacred as those are. We are fighting for the preservation of the life-changing blessing of orchestral music that has changed (and in some cases maybe saved) our lives.

What’s happening in Baltimore is awful governance. Baltimore deserves better. Any community deserves better.

I don’t know how this will shake out, and the uncertainty is terrifying, especially for those directly financially and professionally affected by it.

That said, folks will be alongside you to celebrate or to mourn, as the occasion requires.

Keep your allies posted, as best you can, about what the most overwhelming things happening are. We will do our best to help, and to share any wisdom that we happened to accrue while enduring orchestral labor disputes of our own.

We who advocate for the transparent, responsive governance of American orchestras must push back against this failure.

Know that this is deeply, deeply personal for so many of us, whether we’re musicians or patrons.

That knowledge will not pay musicians’ bills. It will not temper the pain of having to leave their families for weeks on end to take sub gigs to survive. It will not secure stable organizational leadership. It will not make the board listen to desperately worried sick patrons.

But I hope that in some small way the knowledge that you are not alone will comfort you. I hope it comforts you to know that you are right to care, and to sacrifice as far as you see fit, and to know that you are not alone.

You are not alone.

Blessings to all. Keep in touch.

-E

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Friends, please stay up to date on this situation! The Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ website is here. The Save Our BSO audience advocacy group website is here. From there you can follow those groups on social media.

If you feel moved, please support transparent governance however you can, whether by reading articles online about the dispute (this helps show the press that people care!), or by liking and sharing social media posts, or by donating money, or by sending letters or emails of support, or by considering doing whatever else these groups suggest the public do. Those are the best ways to help right now. And good thoughts and a few prayers wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Signing off with the hope that American orchestral governance as a whole improves, and soon. There are so many smart, creative people in this field. I hope we can build a future where we can avoid these heartwrenching situations entirely.

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The Baltimore Symphony in the Twilight Zone

ROD SERLING VOICE:

Imagine, if you will. A non-profit dependent on the trust of the community it serves. The product they push isn’t a product at all; it’s an experience created by people. People who have worked themselves to the bone from childhood to perfect their craft. Imagine, if you will, a decision seemingly pointing to deliberate destruction.

*perches coolly on the edge of a desk*

This non-profit is the Baltimore Symphony in the year two-thousand-and-nineteen AD. April twenty-four: management announces a summer season of concerts. May twenty-five: the state government approves $3.2 million to carry the organization through financial trouble. May thirty: the organization’s leadership burns every bridge, to every stakeholder, for reasons yet unknown and unknowable.

*drags on cigarette*

Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to imagine. Because…

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Amy Beach Essay and March / April Update!

Hey lovelies!

Well, I didn’t get an entry up here this month, partly because I’m generally a dumpster fire of a human being, but also because I’ve been trying to juggle some other projects…

  • I wrote this essay for the Minnesota Orchestra about Amy Beach ahead of their April 13th Inside the Classics show, which will feature a performance of the Gaelic Symphony after intermission. GO TO THIS. Or just buy a ticket for someone else. If you’re interested in hearing the work of historical women, then you need to buy tickets to hear the work of historical women. Tickets are here.
  • I wrote the program notes for Missy Mazzoli’s beautiful piece These Worlds In Us, which was performed by the Minnesota Orchestra this month. The concert is past, but if you want to read them, click here for the PDF.
  • I was the pre-concert speaker at the Hill House Chamber Players’ March concerts. I’m also scheduled to return April 29th and May 6, when I’ll be wrapping up their season of trios by looking at the heartbreaking history of Shostakovich’s second piano trio.
  • I’m also penning the program notes for this summer’s Lakes Area Music Festival concerts. In the meantime you can mark your calendars to make a pilgrimage up north, den; the festival lasts from August 2nd to 25th.
  • Plus I had a bad spring cold (ugh), and I’m assembling taxes as a freelancer (also ugh).

Blogwise I found two women that I really, really wanted to write about, and I invested huge chunks of time into researching both of them…only to realize that both deserve more time than what I have to give them. But I have lots of notes written out, and I promise I’m going to track down the research material (thank you for helping out with the cost of that, my dear generous Patreon supporters!) and assemble their stories, even if it takes a longer than usual. This summer I’ll have been writing regular blog entries about women for two years (!), so maybe it’s good to mix the timing and type of profile up a bit? We’ll see, I guess!

So anyway, I just wanted to check in. I’m not dead. Stay tuned; hopefully I’ll have more soon, and maybe I’ll catch you in-person or in written form at one of the above events!

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Rosy Wertheim: Composer, Teacher, Anti-Nazi Activist

In 1940, 52-year-old composer Rosy Wertheim saw her new piano concerto performed in The Hague. That May, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.

Within two years, Wertheim’s rights – and the rights of her fellow Dutch Jews – would be severely curtailed, then eliminated entirely. Initially this meant relocating Jewish musicians to the back rows of the storied Concertgebouw Orchestra. But by May of 1941 it meant firing them outright. (By 1944, the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s harpist, Rosa Spier, was imprisoned in Theresienstadt.)

In late 1941, the Nazi Kultuurkamer was established in the Netherlands. In order to work, artists, actors, authors, and musicians were forced to pledge written loyalty to the Nazis. Censorship would follow if deemed necessary. Wertheim subsequently withdrew from music entirely and escaped to the countryside, where she went into hiding. She was unsure if she’d ever emerge.

Thereafter, live music hardly played a role in my life. Occasionally I played for a housekeeper, a nurse and a gardener…

“Rosy Wertheim”, Forbidden Music Regained

She waited there for a chance to escape the silence.

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Else Marie Pade: Musical Innovator and Danish Resistance Hero

The year is 2012. The place is the Danish Music Academy concert hall in Copenhagen. The event is the Wunderground Festival. On the program is a work called Svævninger (or Beats).

Before the performance begins, an elderly woman wearing a prim white blouse and a long black skirt descends several steps onto the stage. She is a composer named Else Marie Pade. She is 88 years old and has composed for decades, but she has never heard her work performed in front of a live audience before. Svævninger has been a collaboration with Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard, a colleague half a century her junior.

The two walk slowly across the stage, arm in arm. They acknowledge the audience, then take their seats behind a laptop and a mixer.

“Are you ready?” Kirkegaard asks quietly.

She nods.

The auditorium lights dim to blue. Otherworldly sounds start seeping through the space: eerie, disorienting pulses, a magnetic hallucination.

“That’s good,” she murmurs.

“Yes.”

She looks up to the ceiling where the sky would be.


Documentary by Sofie Tønsberg about the performance of Svævninger

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Else Marie Pade was born Else Marie Jensen on 2 December 1924 in Aarhus, Denmark. Soon after her birth she was diagnosed with a recurring kidney infection. As a result she spent countless months bedbound, motionless, just listening.

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Geraldine Farrar: Opera Diva, Actress, Movie Star: Part 2

Part 1 covers Geraldine Farrar’s background, childhood, and European training. This second part looks at her American career in opera and film.

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During the Gilded Age, in contrast to their European counterparts, American musicians were often viewed as fundamentally incompetent and incapable of great artistry. This anti-American prejudice was so strong that in 1905 an agent forced Texan pianist Lucy Hickenlooper to adopt a foreign pseudonym before her debut; for the rest of her career, she was known as Olga Samaroff.

But Massachussetts-born soprano Geraldine Farrar never used a pseudonym or shied away from her American roots. Instead she embraced them and even used them to fuel her ascent. She presented herself professionally as a kind of real-life embodiment of the American Gibson Girl ideal: independent, self-assured, often self-absorbed, magnetically charismatic, stunningly beautiful, and inarguably talented.

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Red Flags and Audience Advocacy at the Baltimore Symphony

Lots of inane things have been uttered in 2018. More than once I’ve rolled my eyes so hard it’s a miracle my retinas haven’t detached.

And alas, the music world was not exempt from problematic statements. There were many potential nominees, but I think the award for Cringiest Orchestral Hot Take of 2018 has to go to Baltimore Symphony board chair Barbara Bozzuto, who, in an editorial that attempted to justify large-scale organizational cuts, blundered her way into writing this:

Orchestras of our budget size have been facing financial issues for some time. Certain challenges pervade our entire industry: changing demographics, varying media available to listen to music, local economics, time constraints of our audiences, aging subscribers and, in our city’s case, a stubborn and persistent crime wave.

BSO board chair: We need change to secure the orchestra’s future, by Barbara Bozzuto; 21 November 2018
Shut it down

That strategically placed “stubborn and persistent crime wave” reference isn’t improvised or an afterthought; it appears at the very beginning of her piece. It’s clearly a preordained talking point.

A local can describe better why exactly this is so bad, and luckily a local did. Earlier this month Baltimore-based violinist Samuel Thompson wrote a blog entry devoted to the issue. The whole thing is worth pondering, but here’s his concluding paragraph:

This tactic has been studied and is referred to as the use of “coded language”, which is defined as “a subtle way members of the public, media, and politicians talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion” in the United States. As no data has been shared to support the claim that a “crime wave” has had a negative effect on the Baltimore Symphony’s bottom line, one has to question the inclusion of coded language in a statement written to support a structural proposal that will wreak havoc both on the institution and the city’s musical community.

“If language were liquid”: Thoughts for a Board Chair by Samuel Thompson; 19 December 2018

And this comes in an era when the League of American Orchestras has an entire section of their website labeled The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Center, suggesting that this might be a time for orchestras and their leaders to be especially sensitive to the use of coded and loaded language.

In any case, Baltimore is obviously a potential mess that orchestra lovers should monitor in 2019. (What a fun New Year’s resolution to have to keep!)

There’s not enough alcohol in the world.

Personally, given my own life experiences, I find that one of the more interesting aspects of the Baltimore negotiation is the fact that an audience advocacy group is already up and running. It has taken on the “Save Our Symphony” (“SOS”) nomenclature that a variety of other patron advocacy groups have adopted, especially in the wake of the 2010 Detroit Symphony strike. Unlike, say, the League of American Orchestras, there is no central national hub to these SOS organizations. Instead, these groups arise organically and independently, although communication may occur between veteran volunteers and newcomers to the movement.

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