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…

*

I’ve written about labor disputes on this blog since the autumn of 2012. But truly, few developments have been as mind-boggling to me as today’s implosion in Baltimore.

I worry that because the story is complicated and so much of it still doesn’t make sense, that people will tune out.

People: don’t tune out.

We are possibly (likely?) on the verge of a lockout of a major American orchestra.

And here’s why you should care.

*

In the fall of 2018, the musicians and management at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were negotiating a new musician contract. They agreed on two extensions, the latter of which lasted until January 2019.

In early December 2018, management went public with portions of its proposal. It included dramatic, disruptive cuts in programming.

As we have explained to our musicians during bargaining, the Baltimore Symphony can no longer support a 52-week season. Our proposal includes a reduction to a 40-week season, with the number of performances aligned to market demand.

“BSO Proposal Information,” 6 December 2018; https://www.bsomusic.org/misc/bso-updates/bso-proposal-information/

(My italics, because veterans of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout [2012-14] recognize the sentiment… Here’s an excerpt from the 2011 management strategic plan that immediately preceded that organization’s disastrous lockout:)

We will develop new performance formats and content in our expanded Hall, and re-scope our number of concerts to align supply and demand.

Vision for a Sound Future: Strategic Business Plan Summary, Fiscal Years 2012-2015 http://www.saveoursymphonymn.org/uploads/2/2/7/7/22773088/strategic_plan_2011-11-02.pdf

Now, I’m not saying that one phrase a disastrous lockout makes, but it’s also irresponsible to completely ignore similarities of rhetoric. (And this is not the only example.)

Moving on. In late December, a group of donors and patrons banded together with the aim of pushing management in a new direction. They called themselves Save Our BSO.

(Side note: Patron-led advocacy organizations have been a fixture of labor disputes since 2010; some have been better-organized and more effective than others. Save Our Symphony Minnesota was a major presence during the Minnesota lockout, and, full disclosure, I volunteered for them and have a soft spot in my heart for audience advocacy work.)

Save Our BSO laid out their position in a December letter:

Management’s proposal may be one that would produce lower costs, but, in doing so, we believe it will exacerbate the BSO’s problems retaining its musicians and will seriously hinder the BSO’s ability to attract the caliber of musicians who have made the BSO a world class orchestra.

Committee to Save Our BSO letter; 7 December 2018 https://www.saveourbso.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/SaveOurBSO_Letter.pdf

In the letter, Save Our BSO described a culture of unresponsiveness. They claimed they were unable to see documents they requested to get a fuller picture of the organization’s financial issues. They also wrote that management went so far as to claim that the Baltimore Symphony endowment “exists to support a generic cause, such as ‘classical music in Baltimore'” as opposed to just the Baltimore Symphony itself.

Save Our BSO concluded the letter with the suggestion that bridge funding of some kind be made available and that alternate, less destructive methods be employed to reach financial goals. In their words:

At the very least, we urge the BSO to consider relying upon the Endowment Trust as a “bridge” to prevent the degradation of the orchestra while it makes adjustments to secure long-term stability for the orchestra.

With regard to that last point, we have offered to work with and assist management through a collaborative process, which would include sharing our thoughts about how the BSO could increase revenues and enhance programming. We can only do so, however, if management becomes more transparent and demonstrates that it is committed to maintaining our great orchestra.

Committee to Save Our BSO letter; 7 December 2018 https://www.saveourbso.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/SaveOurBSO_Letter.pdf

Save Our BSO conceded that, by its very definition, bridge funding could not be a permanent solution to the crisis, but it would buy the orchestra time to create a more collaborative, inclusive institutional culture, which in turn might ultimately help the organization’s financial situation.

It was against this specific backdrop that government action was soon taken to help provide that suggested “bridge” funding.

Enter Maryland House Bill 1404.

what I’m assuming Maryland House Bill 1404 looks like

Thanks to lobbying from musicians and concerned citizens alike, Maryland House Bill 1404 began its life in February 2019 and went into effect on 25 May 2019.

You can read the full text of the bill here.

House Bill 1404 provided $1.6 million per fiscal year for two years (FY 2020 and FY 2021), for a total investment in the orchestra of $3.2 million.

But, importantly, it also established a “Workgroup.” According to the bill, this is the work that the workgroup is tasked with:

The workgroup is to present its findings to the government “on or before October 1, 2019.”

These are clearly the same types of collaboration-ripe issues that Save Our BSO was concerned with in its December 2018 letter.

Finally, I know that this is boring, but stay with me one second longer, because it might eventually prove important: here is who the bill mandates be in this workgroup:

  • 1 member appointed by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Delegates
  • 2 members of the Baltimore Symphony board, 1 by the chair of the board
  • 3 members of the Baltimore Symphony Players Committee, 1 by the chair of the Baltimore Symphony Players Committee
  • 2 members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra administration, 1 by the BSO CEO

I haven’t delved far enough into the local politics of what this workgroup might look like, but it’s clearly something to stick a pin in. (For instance, is one side feeling underrepresented, and if so, will that be reflected in their enthusiasm about participation?)

However, management appeared to be pleased about developments, including the workgroup, if the 18 April 2019 edition of the Baltimore Sun is any indication. In it, Baltimore Symphony CEO Peter Kjome told the paper:

We are hopeful and optimistic that the bill will become law. A tentative date has been set for the signing ceremony and we anticipate having a firm date in the coming weeks. We are extremely grateful to the General Assembly of Maryland for the passage of this important bill which provides not only financial support but a work group to examine our business model.

“$3.2 million grant from Maryland legislature may help BSO settle contract dispute”, Baltimore Sun, 18 April 2019; https://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-fe-bso-negotiations-update20190417-story.html

The paper also noted:

It is perhaps a positive sign that symphony management will unveil its summer 2019 season in the next several days — a season that previously had been up in the air.

Well…………

It turns out that “perhaps” was the operative word there. After announcing the summer season on 24 April, today the Baltimore Symphony revealed that their musicians and patrons might as well have been on the crappiest episode of Punk’d ever.

Because today we got this historical doozy of an article from the Baltimore Sun.

Yep, the summer season that they’d launched with such optimistic aplomb… *checks calendar*...five weeks ago has now fizzled out like a faulty Fourth of July sparkler, leaving everyone in the dark.

Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ Players Committee, said the musicians were stunned by the announcement. They first heard of Kjome’s plans at 1 p.m. Thursday, an hour after they had completed their final rehearsal for a scheduled concert that night.

The general reaction in the orchestral world today

Interestingly, the audience members (and music director?) are apparently sympathetic to the players:

Before Thursday night’s concert began, the crowd gave the musicians a rare pre-performance standing ovation.

Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the BSO players, addressed the crowd as Maestra Marin Alsop faced him respectfully from the podium.

He told the crowd that musicians have been told they will not be paid after June 16. Loud boos erupted the audience.

A performance of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations then followed.

Another patron quote:

John Jay Bonstingl, 73, of Columbia was not among the protesters. He has been a subscriber for more than 35 years but said he would consider not renewing his subscription in light of the cuts.

“I’m just so absolutely, utterly disgusted,” he said. “This is a slap in the face to the subscribers, to the musicians and to the whole state of Maryland.”

CEO Peter Kjome also made a series of puzzling comments in the article:

“Their support was greatly appreciated,” he said of legislative leaders. “But when we look at our very serious financial issues, their support alone is not enough.” …

Did you…um…tell them that? If not, why not? If you did tell them that, and they didn’t listen to you, why didn’t you mention this in April? And why are they acting so shocked in the press?

The action also cancels a slate of high-profile summer concerts that the organization had announced with some fanfare in late April. Kjome said he hopes to right the organization’s fiscal health enough by next year to resume some of those events, including a popular July 4 concert in Baltimore County.

“We will return to Oregon Ridge in 2020,” he pledged.

How? I mean… I know how, and the people reading this know how, and the musicians certainly know how, and you know how, but why don’t you say the word out loud? You’re convinced you’re going to get your way because you’re likely going to impose a lockout.

LOCKOUT.

Just to make sure I understood, I messaged arts lawyer Kevin Case to hear directly from a professional about what this process might potentially entail after today’s concert cancellations, and after the BSO’s regular season ends on June 16th:

If a contract expires and there is no strike or lockout, and the parties haven’t bargained to impasse, then the employer is obligated to maintain the status quo – i.e., keep paying wages and benefits at the same level as before the contract expired. The employer is NOT entitled to simply stop paying. The only way that can happen is with a lockout. (Or by declaring bankruptcy.)

Message with Kevin Case, 30 May 2019
my reaction, courtesy of Michael Scott

And hey, remember that work group tied to the state money? The one that was supposed to get the BSO on firmer financial footing by jointly studying vital issues like cost containment, structural efficiencies, health care costs, and audience development and diversity? Yeah. That bill only became law five days ago, and so that group hasn’t had time to name its members, let alone actually do any work.

Sorry, Joan; I’m not

So clearly there are still a lot of unknowns here, and the situation is obviously fluid. But these were the main questions I walked away with after today:

  • When working to pass House Bill 1404, did Baltimore’s management ever indicate to lawmakers that they were considering (or planning on) canceling the 2019 summer season? Because the politicians quoted in the Baltimore Sun today sounded totally blindsided! Or has management deliberately burned that political bridge? If so, who benefits – ideologically or otherwise – from the arson?
  • Or did the management legitimately have no idea that cancelling the summer season was a possibility a few weeks ago? If so, a replacement of senior leadership seems like it would be more constructive than a labor dispute. Damn.

Remember, as best as the public knows, nothing significant changed about the orchestra’s finances between the announcement of the summer season in late April and today…aside from the securing of the $3.2 million from the state.

This entry has gone on long enough, but allow me one last digression.

This sh** is not okay.

You don’t agree to take government money, while sidestepping a work group deliberately legislated alongside that money, and then unilaterally impose big concert cuts onto the musicians and audiences who helped lobby for that money. It’s a terrible look. It erodes trust in good governance, and when a non-profit loses the trust of its stakeholders, what does it have left? That hypothetical non-profit has nothing. And it deserves nothing.

This field has enough problems as it is. We don’t need to add to the list “patrons having to decide whether ineptitude or mere cynicism is the reason why an entire summer season of concerts has been abruptly canceled.”

If you’re at the top, just be better. These kinds of antics are unsustainable. And they will be called out.

If you’re the rest, stay informed. Check out the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ and the Save Our BSO websites. Follow them on social media. See how you can get involved, even if you aren’t based in Maryland. You can always speak your mind in comment sections and send well wishes directly to folks affected. All people who care about well-run non-profits – and especially people who care about well-run orchestras – need to call out problems when we see them.

Because in the words of Mr. Serling:

“Couldn’t happen you say? Probably not in most places, but it did happen…in the Twilight Zone.”

16 Comments

Filed under Labor Disputes

16 responses to “The Baltimore Symphony in the Twilight Zone

  1. Aubrey Foard

    As a BSO musician, thank you for this wonderfully thorough and accurate article!

  2. Doug Ramsdell

    Hmmmmmmm. One might be correct in assuming that management was planning this all along, even as they were hondeling the state legislature for money. As long as board & management stay in place, one can say goodbye to further state infusions of money, since how can any legislator trust these people to keep their word? And without further state infusions, given a board and executives who are clearly not interested in doing their fund-raising JOBS, the BSO becomes a regional or community orchestra. This is beginning to feel a little like crazy pilots crashing the airliner because their inner demons told them to. (I did hit the BSO Players Facebook page to post a comment, and was happy to see your name came up, in a “for a cogent commentary on the situation, go HERE” kind of way.

    Like so much else happening nowadays, this BSO stuff IS NOT NORMAL.

  3. David Gooding

    As details emerge, I expect that something not quite savory will come to light in the financials: the common thread here seems to be an unwillingness to truly open the books to close scrutiny.

  4. Sharman Steltenpohl

    GREAT article! Thank you!

  5. Kate. Russell

    Excellent article. Though I am paralyzed from a stroke, and my family has been planning a visit to California to see me, I know that my sister, a BSO musician, will not be able to afford to come see me. In fact, I am sure that the various GoFundMe accounts set up for me, will now be reassigned to my sister and her family to help them through this crisis. She has lived in Baltimore since 1992, when she was accepted into the BSO after completing her Masters at Juilliard. She and her husband have a lovely home in Baltimore, and I would hate to see them lose it because she must find work in another city. I am glad I did not move there, though I like the city very much and would have become very involved with the symphony. I could not have borne going through this kind of dysfunctional management that will only yield one result: Baltimore will no longer have a world class Symphony, and maybe no Symphony if all the musicians flee Baltimore for work in other symphonies. Time will tell, and it seems time has run out. Thank you for your excellent article.

    • I don’t want to give false hope, because this is indeed a dark moment, but also don’t give up hope. The Minnesota Orchestra was in a similarly difficult (I’d argue even worse) place in 2012-14. It ultimately evolved into an organization that is much more collaborative and responsive to patron feedback. It’s not impossible that the same thing happens in this situation, too. Wishing you and your family all the best.

  6. Passport holder here. I think the CEO and board president need to resign, their actions are completely disingenuous and unethical towards the musicians, lawmakers, and the BSO audience. How can we put the pressure on them?

    • Great question. Follow the Baltimore Symphony Musicians and Save Our BSO on social media. I’m sure they’ll issue calls to action when they feel they have a handle on what actions will be most productive.

  7. drmarksays

    This is a tough situation all round. I feel for the musicians that bring so much pleasure to many.

    I also feel that board members are in a difficult spot. They are all major contributors. I suspect many are retirement age and if not very busy in their careers. They have an unenviable problem though in continuously trying to square the circle. What I’m saying is that they are frustrated by an impossible task.

    What is worse is that tickets are now very expensive and not much chance of raising prices. Also many concert halls are in areas of questionable safety at night. Recording contacts have dried up pretty much. So orchestras have to set up their own labels and invest in their own equipment. AV streaming is certainly and option. However, few orchestras have the international recognition to attract world wide Internet subscription seasons like the Berlin Philharmonic. The DSO are doing a good job of this, but their set up and studio was donated by a wealthy donor. The other limitation is that to really get the full enjoyment of these concerts then subscribers need to invest in relatively expensive and complex equipment to take full advantage of what is on offer. In addition a lot of residences are not entirely suitable for such equipment. Despite the huge increase in range and quality of home AV systems, less homes have quality equipment in the home than in previous years. A lot of this is because tablets, smart phones and like devices have already consumed a lot of the discretionary electronics budget.

    I can say though that investing in such equipment can provide a wonderful concert experience now. With the right equipment a concert electronic ticket is a wonderful way to enjoy a concert. You don’t have to venture out in inclement weather, and systems can now be put together that are not second best to going to the concert. In fact the quality will be better than most seats in the house and audience distraction is far less.

    Alliances with vendors, equipment manufacturers and promotion of this route is certainly something all professional symphony orchestras need to take a careful look at. The leaders sell vastly more Internet season tickets than ones to the hall.

    Unless new sources of revenue are found then more and more symphony orchestras will either have to reduce salaries or go volunteer either partially or totally. I think the money from donations is probable maxed or more likely to recede in the years ahead. In my view there is far too much reliance on donated funds. This is an issue all arts organizations have to address. It is a very difficult and intractable problem.

    • Yeah, we disagree on a multitude of levels. An at-home sound system will never solve an organization’s governance issues.

      • drmarksays

        Not in itself possibly. However I maintain that the unenviable task of having to raise all this money to keep these organizations afloat must be discouraging a lot of key community individuals. I certainly would run a mile from getting on one of those governing boards.

        The BPO is certainly an interesting case. Deutsche Bank who were the major source of funds for the DSO fell on somewhat hard times and said that the BPO needed to become self supporting. They did however partner with Sony to set up the Digital Concert Hall. Soon other vendors joined for the right to put the BPO app on their smart devices. Now the BPO App is on almost all smart devices, including Apple. Between this and the now hundreds of thousands of Internet ticket holders like myself, i think the orchestra is now pretty much self sufficient if not self sufficient. There also offer recordings in multiple formats.

        Our SPCO has also started streaming concerts. You have to make a contribution to get access. Some concerts are audio only and some AV. The AV concerts have been very high quality with excellent audio.

        This is an approach that can not be dismissed. The Met also has a streaming service. Many opera lovers now regard good streaming or Blu-Ray disc as the finest way of enjoying opera and better then the in house experience. That has been my view for some time now. AV I think is now the best way to enjoy opera.

        I don’t think you can dismiss this. My major point is that the current system is I believe going to come up against the brick wall and abusing governing boards will not be productive. I’m not saying they are blameless at all, they have done some bad and dumb things. However their job is difficult, onerous and getting worse. Personally I will be surprised if more organizations don’t get into trouble. I predict it is only a matter of time before we get into trouble here again in Minnesota.

        It is high time to explore new paths. I certainly would help any organization explore and develop attracting audiences outside the confines of the concert hall or opera house.

        For many years as a busy physician, I volunteered to record and produce the Grand Forks concerts for broadcast with my own equipment. Often these would go out state wide. I’m very familiar with current technology.
        One big issue which the BPO have worked out is easily making access available to large number of subscribers and making it easy.

        As well as providing funds it also helps reach audiences who can not easily reach the concert hall due to distance and career responsibilities. With online access you can watch when you want and as many times as you want. There is no orchestra, or opera company that should not be exploring these options. We have now moved a long way beyond traditional radio.

        My last point is that musicians and especially their unions do not serve their cause well in being obstructionist to these technologies and developments.
        That is just plain counterproductive. They need to embrace it and develop it as a potential life line for job preservation.

    • Roz

      I disagree, BSO tickets are a BARGIN. Compare the price of these tickets to any professional sports team. I listen to the BSO at Strathmore and don’t pay for parking.

  8. Well, when a society makes decisions to emphasize educating the young to have jobs (and to hate that which doesn’t “look like them”) instead of becoming literate and cognizant, and minor details like what is beautiful and good (art, music, dance, architecture, etc.) are utterly neglected as “elitist” rather than “for everybody” the beautiful and good become foreign objects to those undereducated beings and as a result the beauty fades away into irrelevance. And what do you get in that case? The likes of Filth McConnell, Lindsey Filth Graham and Contemptible, Vile Filth Trump: the ugly, the hideous and the evil. Welcome to AmeriKKKa, the crass and culture-less. I suspect in a few months there won’t be a Baltimore Symphony any more, and I attended Peabody during the time of Sergiu Commissiona’s tenure, so I know Meyerhoff Hall and I am a former conductor of modest musical abilities. Alas. Those like me who are getting old aren’t able to continue to support these institutions any more and no one coming up, who has money from the barbaric form of capitalism we are afflicted with today, will willingly give their money to support the beautiful and the good. So it becomes a testimony to the mindsets of younger, rich people today: small, stupid, selfish and greedy.

  9. orchobserver

    Be circumspect before pointing to cases like the MN Orchestra, which may yet again find itself challenged because of a failure to fundamentally change its business, community, and artistic models. Time will tell whether the so-called turnaround is in fact a turnaround. The entire classical music industry desperately needs to confront the realities of change in a global society where, while classical European repertoire and its derivations remain fulfilling, the accoutrements associated with accessing them in person do not. Orchestra have been talking about these issues for years — to wit, the 1994 report on Americanizing the American Orchestra — but the field has witnessed no systemic change or significant models of change. “Community” is all about looking good and missionary work, not about engaging people’s inherent intrigue with classical music; and despite alot of pandering gimmicks, concert halls remain barriers to many families, underrepresented communities, and those who don’t already value the art form. Meanwhile, music schools and conservatories change nothing, preparing students for a world that is disappearing and unsustainable, and learning that their careers will be upheld by wealthy donors to whom they should cater. Changes that prepare career musicians for the realities of incomes that will require performing, teaching, engaging, leading, and creating are ridiculed by the teachers who themselves have found security in the payrolls of colleges and universities. “Make Orchestras Great Again,” unlike our current president’s assumptions about making America great again, is not about trying to convince people to pay for a status quo operation in order to support musicians’ career — musicians who too often feel that their only “service” is to their art, and not to their fellow humans or their communities, particularly those of color. The 52 week season that evolved in a different era now has enormous competition for how people may choose to spend their dollars. Foundations have become unenamored of funding orchestras because they have not seen the change promised, and instead have seen their funds go into operating costs under a facade of innovation. New generations of philanthropic families want to see direct social, health, and educational improvements for their investments. The Mellon Foundation, meanwhile, pours millions into one or more programs designed to get children of color “conservatory ready,” as though conservatories remain relevant in the midst of societal, fiscal, and cultural influences that challenge their elitist provincialism. IT is time to stop navel gazing and to ask how orchestras can be a viable part of an exciting world of musics and music experiences that recognize the rich breadth of music traditions, experiences, and sonic creativities that, together, will serve the greater good of music’s inestimaable and transcendent values in the human experience. Flexibility, cross-institutional collaboration, teaching and public service as a musician commitment, realistic and sustainable business models that don’t constantly rely on a few gold-givers to bail out the annual budget while structural deficits continue to grow, fewer palatial concert halls and more concerts-in-community, embracing technology and digital access, and collaboration between music schools and orchestras around careers of service to the human weal may all be part of the essential radical change. Whining about noone understanding the music, the musicians, or the unsustainable business model and paying exorbitant salaries to conductors for a few concerts a year and begging legislators to support world-class orchestras when communities are hurting will not assure an orchestral culture for the future. It’s not a corporation – it’s an enhancement of our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual lives that is distinctive from all other forms of enrichment — but it is a service, not a commodity.

    • drmarksays

      Orchobserver, everything you say is right on Target. Unfortunately we will have to sacrifice and not bail out the next few orchestras facing bankruptcy and Baltimore will have to be fist on the list. It will take this to bring other orchestras to face reality.

      The answer is NOT more ghastly pop concerts. A very robust digital presence will be one of the major foundation pins of the new and changed organizations. And no musicians you will not get extra pay for the new digital distribution it is now an expected part of your job, without which you won’t have one much longer.

      I absolutely hate to admit that in many ways musicians outdated attitudes are a major part of the problem. They had better rectify this pronto.

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