Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians protest outside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as negotiations continue over salaries. (Kevin Richardson)
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians protested outside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Monday morning, carrying signs and chanting “Save the BSO!” after being locked out of the performing center as management continues to negotiate salaries.
Management abruptly canceled the orchestra’s summer concerts on May 30, citing a $16 million loss in revenue, despite increased donations, over the past decade. Facing a projected $1.5 million deficit by the end of the fiscal year, the organization has proposed cutting musicians’ pay, health care and vacation time as well as reducing its season from 52 weeks to 40 weeks.
“This is a bit of a scare tactic on their part to try to elicit a very punitive contract from their musicians,” said percussionist Brian Prechtl, co-chair of the players’ committee, which organized the protest. “They’re trying to reduce the scope of the organization by 20%. … Instead they’ve got a bunch of hell-raisers here.”
Greg Mulligan, the other co-chair, said the musicians love playing for audiences year-round, including in their concerts at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville and the Strathmore Music Hall in Montgomery County. He said the musicians have given up millions in contract concessions since 2003.
“It’s not only about our compensation. It’s about great music,” Mulligan said. “Musicians will leave the orchestra, as they have, to go play in other orchestras if we don’t have the best musicians. They want to stay around the best musicians, they want to be paid properly, and if that isn’t the case, we’re not going to be the orchestra that we are today.”
The orchestra’s board of directors approved the Meyerhoff lockout Sunday evening, the management group wrote in a news release, saying the board could not reach an agreement with Local 40-543, the union that represents the orchestra’s musicians.
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“Due to the Baltimore Symphony’s urgent need to address longstanding financial issues and change its business model, the BSO has made this extremely difficult decision,” CEO Peter Kjome wrote in a statement.“The BSO is a beloved and important cultural anchor for Maryland and our region, and it is vital that our community is home to an exceptional orchestra for generations to come. The BSO remains focused on resuming negotiations and working with our musicians and Local 40-543 to reach agreement on a new contract as soon as possible.”
Musicians are being asked to bear a financial burden created by upper management, Prechtl said.
The performers’ salary cuts have come without similar cuts to management’s salaries, he said.
“This has been an ongoing process that began over a year ago with management and they have not really been up front about their intentions,” Prechtl said, adding that the orchestra’s board said they would not lock the group out during the negotiation process.
“This is a union-busting move,” he said.
The musicians are already the lowest-paid among their peers, said John Warshawsky, a governing member of the symphony orchestra for more than a decade who heads the advocacy group Save Our BSO.
The BSO’s $72 million endowment was placed into a trust under a separate board in 2006 to protect its assets, and while it has been increasing its spending on the orchestra in recent years, Warshawsky said, its board members are more concerned about maintaining the money in the account than supporting the musicians.
“These are people with mortgages, with rent, with families and healthcare concerns,” Warshawsky said. “Putting the interests of the endowment trust and its fund ahead of these musicians is simply inhumane, unconscionable. I wish management would be honest about defending that decision.”
Mary Plaine, Secretary-Treasurer of The Musicians’ Association of Metropolitan Baltimore, echoed Prechtl’s comments, writing in an email that the “financial difficulties the BSO finds itself in are self-inflicted, and the solution rests within the power of the board to solve.”
“They have chosen instead to protect the endowment while starving the organization,” Plaine wrote. “We, along with our musicians, look forward to negotiating a reasonable, progressive contract when the BSO leadership is ready.”
However, its musicians argue that it would reduce the standing of the orchestra “from a full-time, world class symphony orchestra into a part-time regional orchestra.”
Legislators have also called upon Gov. Larry Hogan to release $1.6 million in funding set aside for the orchestra.
The governor said last week he would most likely not release the funding, saying the orchestra has already received millions of dollars in state assistance.