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The BSO: No contract, But They're Still Talking

Graphic courtesy BSO


The musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have been working without a contract since mid-January, when a temporary agreement expired. And while that could have meant a strike with other unions, the musicians have agreed to stay and play.

Brian Prechtl, a percussionist and co-chair of the orchestra’s Players’ Committee, says they’re making progress in the contract talks, but it’s been slow going.

“We hope to keep talking,” he said. “And we hope that management starts to realize just how much sentiment there is behind keeping the BSO a major orchestra, a full-time 52-week orchestra and that they’ll reconsider.”

That’s been the biggest sticking point in the talks; symphony management’s proposal to cut the orchestra’s season from 52 weeks a year to 40 weeks. Prechtl, says the move would be “incredibly damaging to the institution.”

“It would cut our wages by 20 percent and eliminate all programing during the summer months.” 

Jane Marvine, who’s been playing oboe and English horn in the orchestra for 40 years, says the change would set the orchestra back decades and threaten the quality of the music.

“What’s being proposed would take us back way before my time joining the orchestra,” she said. “You can’t expect any worker, any great artist to want to make their career here if the wages are going back to 20 years.”

And John Warshawsky, a loyal fan and season ticket holder, says the shortened season and the potential loss of musicians could cause irreversible damage to the 102-year-old orchestra.

“It’s a highly competitive industry to be sure,” he explained. “These folks that we have right now are at the top of the game.  If we lose them we won’t be replacing them with the same caliber of musicians. We just won’t.”

Symphony management declined an interview request, but issued a brief statement saying that it is seeking to create “a better financial position and a sustainable business model.” 

Back in November, the orchestra said it has lost $16 million dollars over the last 10 years and that an analysis of the finances found it would not be feasible to continue operating as a year-round orchestra.

Marvine says the musicians are aware of the financial crisis, but she argues the management should be talking about something other than shortening the season.

“The conversation we should be having is, how do we make the case to the community that this cultural institution is worth saving, is worth preserving, for all the citizens of our state,” she said.

Prechtl says orchestra management hasn’t looked at how they could reach out to reach out to a broader market, how “we could be playing for more Marylanders, not fewer Marylanders.”

“To us it kind of seems like they are taking the easy way out and deciding that they just want to reduce the scope of the organization.”

Meanwhile, a group of about 20 donors and supporters calling itself “Save Our BSO” has launched a letter writing campaign urging management to reconsider the cuts. And former Governor and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley has jumped into the fray with emails urging people to “take action” to “Save the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.”

O’Malley’s email notes that public funding has dropped by 30 percent since 2008 and calls for state and local governments to restore funding to pre-recession levels.

Despite the community support, Marvine says the players have “no confidence about our future.”

“We have to change this conversation,” she said. “ We owe it to our community. This is something that’s bigger than us.

Nonetheless, Prechtl says, they’ll keep talking and keep playing; no lock-outs and no strike.