When violent unrest spread through Baltimore’s streets after the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray, the Orioles did something unprecedented. For the first time in Major League Baseball history, the team played in an empty stadium, citing safety concerns.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chose to send a different message. Its musicians stepped outside of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and into the streets to play a free outdoor concert.
For the last few weeks, those same musicians are back on the same stretch of Cathedral Street. This time, they’re walking a picket line, after management abruptly cancelled all summer concerts and locked the musicians out with no pay.
In an effort to cut back costs, management wants the musicians, who are currently without a collective bargaining agreement, to cut the season to 40 weeks, down from 52.
“The BSO has been facing serious cash flow issues following years of substantial financial losses and we have an urgent need to address longstanding issues and change our business model,” the orchestra’s president and CEO Peter Kjome said. “So we made this change to help us make additional progress to move toward a sustainable business model.”
Last week, the BSO learned that help from the state wasn’t going to arrive. Maryland lawmakers had approved $1.6 million in emergency state aid for the BSO -- but Governor Larry Hogan said he won’t actually release that money.
Members of the BSO’s endowment trust gave the orchestra a near $2.3 million loan to carry out expenses through mid-June, and are wary of giving it any more cash. Some musicians, like Greg Mulligan, a violinist and the co-chair of the BSO Players’ Committee, think the endowment withdrawals could be larger — and that poor management has made its financial situation much worse.
“The classic reason for an orchestra to take a smaller draw and thus produce a deficit is to be able to come to the workers — in our case the musicians — and say, ‘We're really sorry but we're bleeding money, and so as great as you guys are you're going to have to take a pay cut because we can't balance our budget,’ ” Mulligan said.
“Our objective is to help ensure that our community continues to be home to an exceptional orchestra for many years to come,” Kjome said. “And it's important that we ensure that we have the financial strength and stability and the operational excellence to in turn support the artistic excellence that enriches our community.”
Going without a summer paycheck is a hardship for many BSO musicians, including Schuyler Jackson.
“It's more earth shattering than I even expected,” said the bassoon player, who’s been with the orchestra since he graduated from college about five years ago.
Jackson says he’s not doing well without his usual full-time paycheck. He has to make two hefty loan payments each month. One chips away at his student loans. The other is for a $32,000 bassoon that he says he needs to play professionally.
“This bassoon allowed me to keep this job and maintain this job at this level,” Jackson said. “The better the instrument, the less you have limitations to what you can do, and then you can get into an orchestra of this caliber.”
Given the rest of Baltimore’s woes, a lot of the city’s philanthropy is directed to other needs, like education and health. The orchestra still has loyal financial supporters, like Bill Nuremberg.
“The arts are actually the soul of the city,” Nuremberg said. “Health care and so forth — those are the bones. Those are the skeleton. That's the essential part to make the bodies of the city stand. But we are the soul.”
Despite its grim financial situation, the orchestra’s staff chooses to give a lot of its time and money back. It runs OrchKids, which offers music lessons, tutors, and dinner to more than 1,300 local children.
Many musicians say the BSO is a community that expands far outside the Meyerhoff – and the proposed schedule means the BSO will lose talent to other orchestras.
“We're not striking,” said oboist Michael Lisicky. “We have nothing to strike. We wanna go in here. This is our home. They locked us out.”
Management says the proposed schedule means stronger longevity for the BSO.
“The Board of the BSO is keenly aware that the future of this fine orchestra depends on a new, sustainable business model,” said Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Board Chair Barbara Bozzuto. “We stand solidly behind management’s efforts to work with the musicians and reach an agreement which ensures that future, and look forward to its realization.”
Kjome says next week’s contract negotiations, where federal mediators will assist, will be important. Musicians say that until the Meyerhoff opens back up, they intend to keep picketing.