Baltimore proposes to slash orchestra by 23 percent

Baltimore proposes to slash orchestra by 23 percent


norman lebrecht

November 01, 2018

Just in from the musicians:

The BSO Musicians received an offer from the Baltimore Symphony management on Tuesday, October 30th. Tuesday was only the second negotiation meeting scheduled with management this season, and the only session since the previous collective bargaining agreement expired on September 9, 2018.

The BSO management offered a proposal that entailed a radically reduced season, cutting the weeks of employment from 52 to 40, amounting to a 23% cut in work weeks. The BSO has proposed eliminating its summer season, just one year after telling the Musicians at the bargaining table how important it is that the BSO remains one of this country’s 52-week orchestras.

The offer would result in a minimum of a 17% cut in salary. Other increased costs to Musicians in benefits and workload changes would bring the total cuts to 25% in real world value.

The Management of the BSO is openly calling for conversion of the Orchestra from a full-time, world-class symphony orchestra into a part-time regional orchestra, reflecting the BSO’s view of the reduced ability of a “troubled” Baltimore to continue to sustain a top-level institution.


The Baltimore Symphony has been a cornerstone of the arts community for over one hundred years. Generations of Baltimore families have been entertained and educated about music at our performances.  It is a hallmark of truly great cities to have institutions that enrich the cultural landscape and keep the arts alive and flourishing for generations to come. A vital Orchestra is just as essential to a thriving metropolitan area as museums, aquariums, theaters and stadiums. Maryland has shown that it wants a great orchestra. The State of Maryland has been incredibly generous in supporting the BSO historically. Just this summer the State of Maryland was one of the largest supporters of our recent tour to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The effect of these cuts to the BSO would result not only in the diminution of the orchestra itself, but on the quality of life of the entire region. The music community will be degraded as world-class musicians choose to make their homes elsewhere. The city as a whole will suffer a terrible loss artistically and culturally, which will in turn hurt its viability for the business community, as well as its major hospitals and centers of higher learning.

The Musicians are united in their love for the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. They are also united in their dedication to the incredible Orchestra that has been built by the sacrifices and dedication of Baltimore’s citizens for the past 102 years. The Musicians want to continue to support the region in every way we can. However, there is no doubt that many musicians would leave the BSO if this current plan were implemented. So we are determined to garner support from the community to stand against this ill-conceived plan.


The BSO management cites “annual deficits” as the reason for their radical demands that BSO musicians’ salaries and benefits be cut by 25%.

The management of the BSO claims that the organization has incurred $16 million of deficits in the past decade. A close look at the numbers shows that these “deficits” are not a result of musician’s salaries – which have essentially remained flat over the past ten years, and when adjusted for inflation, have decreased. In contrast, spending in other areas has increased consistently, including pay for administrative expenses, production costs, conductors and guest artists. As a matter of fact, the expense line for non-musician expenses increased by 46% between 2010 and 2016. We challenge the BSO management to justify paying the Musicians – the Artists who perform the basic mission of the BSO, playing great music for our community – less and less, while spending more and more on everything else. Something is drastically wrong.

$2.8 million of the supposed deficit occurred in 2009 when the BSO decided not to take its customary draw. Another $3 million increase in expenses was incurred during the Centenary Season.  Many other projects throughout the last ten years over and above our mission to play great orchestral music have contributed to the financial shortfall.

The so-called “deficits” are a bookkeeping device to cover up for BSO management’s inexplicable failure to use available endowment funds, as necessary, to augment ticket sales and annual contributions, as every other one of their peer institutions does. This is particularly egregious in the face of investment earnings in the endowment funds in recent years, which have far exceeded the BSO’s own projections.

The BSO may claim its endowment funds are “independent” and beyond their control. The BSO’s own certified public accountants treat the BSO and its endowment funds as a single consolidated entity for financial purposes.

We challenge the BSO to publicly disclose the true, consolidated financial status of its endowment funds, their earnings, and the availability of those funds to maintain the BSO as a world-class orchestra by filling open positions in the Orchestra. Today, at any given performance, up to 30% of the Orchestra is made up of part-time musicians who are paid less and receive no benefits, because there are only 77, soon to be only 75, full-time members. The expired contract provided for 98 musicians, and had allowed in recent years to be reduced to 83.


No other major US orchestra has as few as 75, or 77, or 83 full-time members. Not one.

The timing of this deeply damaging decision by CEO Peter Kjome and the management of the Baltimore Symphony is even more disturbing. It occurs in the midst of a $65 million capital campaign and on the heels of a wildly successful international tour.

Why would the BSO plan and execute a world-class tour in August, only to return to Baltimore in September and announce that we can no longer be world-class? Why make the effort in the first place to showcase an orchestra that is to be diminished upon its return?

The BSO’s leaders seem to lack any vision for the institution beyond their immediate cash flow concerns. This displays a profound level of carelessness as stewards of the artistic treasure that is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

We call upon our devoted patrons and supporters – the citizens of Baltimore and its environs, Montgomery County, and Maryland – to join the BSO Musicians in fighting to keep the BSO a world-class orchestra.


  • Doug says:

    Well….someone’s got to pay those hefty legal bills for the constant sexual harassment lawsuits.

    • MAS Musician says:

      Carney got fired this Thursday, day of the concert, for harassing a woman in a smaller orchestra he was soloing with.

      • Namesake says:


        • Anon says:

          Carney was observed making threats against two women in that local orchestra. Its board voted to fire him before the concert. They took the threats seriously. The orchestra sightread concertos with the other soloist while Carney played 0 of 3 concerts.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I wish I could say that the splendid artists of this fine old orchestra have some bargaining chips in their quality and history, but I am not sure they do. I think more and more boards in more and more cities are coming to the conclusion that their city has more – meaning quality, but size enters into it as well — orchestra than its population and more importantly its donor base and audience really cares about.

    One medium sized city in Wisconsin that had a surprisingly good orchestra had its board determine that to the extent the audience and donor base wanted the music at all, which they seemed to doubt, they would be just as happy going to that same city’s civic orchestra of talented amateurs, teachers, and a very few professionals, who all played for peanuts (and in some cases were nonetheless overpaid).

    There was no funding crises, no battle over pay or size or anything else. The board just shut it all down evidently feeling it was inappropriate for them to ask the city and its residents to give money given other needs in the city. It was not a negotiating ploy. There was no negotiation. Poof. Gone. I very much doubt if that board was made up of left-wing social activists, but I can say that the left wing social activists I do know would very much support ending all orchestras that are not self supporting (as if any professional orchestras are) because they are diverting money away from “greater” needs. Cities like Baltimore (and you could add rustbelt cities to the list) are all vulnerable to this.

    • Bruce says:

      Do you mean Green Bay?

      • Scotty says:

        I was wondering as well. But that’s really rounding up to call Green Bay a “medium sized city.” What is it, 100,000 people or so, assuming that you’re not counting on a home game day?

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Yes I was thinking of Green Bay. A couple of other mid-sized cities in Wisconsin which however lacked even a civic symphony alternative could also have been named.

    • Rgiarola says:

      This is something the rest of the world should learn a bit with USA. Government should only support institutions that can pay their own bills. However some curtural one, landmarks of their community should be kept even with public funding. I think BSO is about it.

      • NYMike says:

        No arts institution (orchestra, ballet, opera, library, regional theater, etc.) pays its own way. Tix sales come in around 30 – 35% of budget. Better the USA should learn from the rest of the world.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Huh? If it paid its way, why would it need government support?

        The reason anything gets government support is because there are benefits to society which can not be captured through ticket sales.

    • John Borstlap says:

      However, this looks as something else: staff that skims resources for themselves and thus use the orchestra for their own gain, instead of serving the institution. This happens in more places…. there are symphony orchestras which are run by a staff army larger than the orchestra itself. Glamour, donors, sponsoring, government support – all this may attract certain types of people, smelling easy money.

      • Mick the Knife says:

        It happens in academia, also.

      • Wigglesworth says:

        Orchestra staff tend to be an easy punching bag in these situations, and to the outside world, the people not making the music are certainly less sympathetic. I can’t speak to upper management (working in the industry in the DMV, I’ve heard of many questionable decisions they’ve made in recent years), but I can say to that “staff army” that is “smelling easy money,” you would be better off going into teaching than working at a symphony orchestra if self-enrichment was your aim. Orchestra staff have no union, and are the easiest to cut or combine roles. What’s more, working at an orchestra is a great way to make $35k and a crummy health plan as a reward for having a couple of graduate degrees and a few internships you paid for the right to work at. But you accept that because you believe in the mission and the music.

        • Bill says:

          Someone I know has two healthy kids now thanks to the Chicago Symphony’s excellent health plan covering the very high costs of fertility treatments. She is no longer there, so I cannot ask her about the current health plan or pay for staffers, but at the time, she was very happy with the health coverage! Might be a mistake to assume that all orchestra staffers are on the “DGS” health plan (Don’t Get Sick), though no doubt institutions across the board are looking to cut or shift the ballooning costs of health care coverage.

          I think another factor which may be at play here is the relative ease of adding non-orchestra members to the staff. The music director usually can’t just say “oh, these works would be easier if we had another utility horn and a couple more 2nd violins” and just hire them – there’s the CBA to be followed, auditions scheduled and posted, etc. After the new members are seated half a year down the road, income is unchanged. The development director goes to the CEO and makes a case for hiring some more people to shake the money tree and gets approval to hire the people already selected. Assuming even modest competence, donation income goes up. And maybe a year or two later, the project is over, but we’ve had this employee doing good work for a year, they are essential to the organization and work will be found for them. Only when times are really tough will the boss want to cut the people he/she enjoys working with every day, and the players in the orchestra do not usually hang out with the management.

          • Wigglesworth says:

            I’m actually quite happy with my current health plan working for an arts organization, so I agree the DGS plan is not universal. I do work in the DMV area and have had friends in Baltimore and based my comments (and those specific numbers) on their stories.

            Baltimore has been a bit of a weird case study in the industry, and it’s sounded like there have been many questionable decisions made by management there, though I also don’t know how much those would have mattered based on the market challenges.

            The short story I’ve heard was they’d been doing pretty well. Very respectable numbers in terms of % of house filled, respected artistically as perhaps the best in the region. Then things started to go down hill financially. They pushed out the CEO after some big losses on a centennial season (something I’d always caution arts orgs with is your audience tends not to care about anniversaries near as much as you think they will.) Then the board chair acted as interim CEO and things get a bit weird. They don’t really fill positions in marketing/PR for a while, then lay off those departments en mass to use outside consulting firms in their place. They don’t quite understand what roles those staff fulfilled and whether the firms will cover them, so quickly they then try to hire back some part timers to cover their mess. Even if you did think that you could get better, cheaper work by outsourcing… the way they went about it sounds like a total boondoggle. Somewhere in there you get a new CEO. Things with the firms go poorly, very poorly. So eventually they cut ties with those and try to rebuild their in-house marketing/PR staff.

            Throughout it all, it sounds like morale has been low and turnover pretty high. Meanwhile sales (can’t speak for devo) trends have been bad. Lot of speculation on that. Sounded like there was a bit of a dip post 2015 riots/protests as maybe some suburban folks were less interested in coming into town. Not sure if there are hard numbers to support that. From a fundraising standpoint though, Baltimore is a city with a lot of needs. So you’re competing for charitable donations against like programs aimed at keeping kids out of gangs, which is tough. I don’t know what to make of all of it. Sounds like there has been bad management, but also that the question of whether that city can support that much orchestra. I just will stick up for my fellow rank and file orchestra employees here. Because they might be getting screwed by management worse than the musicians, and lord knows they aren’t getting rich.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Surely that will be the case at many orchestras. That is why I included ‘may’. There will be differences between states, areas, and in Europe things are different again. But there are also quite some people who flipped at a music education and end-up at an orchestra management or in an academic position, longing to be close to the art form and wanting to dedicate their efforts to it, but in the same time full of resentment and bitter jealousy.

        • Mick the Knife says:

          Teaching is about self-enrichment? Clueless..

          • Bruce says:

            You’d be surprised — or maybe you wouldn’t — at the number of people who believe that public school teachers live in gated communities and drive BMWs. (They tend to be the same people who believe that welfare recipients live on lobster and filet mignon.)

    • John Borstlap says:

      “I think more and more boards in more and more cities are coming to the conclusion that their city has more – meaning quality, but size enters into it as well — orchestra than its population and more importantly its donor base and audience really cares about.”

      If in a place there is not enough interest in its orchestra to sustain it, an orchestra’s existence should not be dependent upon the cultural underdevelopment of the population: people should be educated, and the orchestra kept afloat by the authorities until the situation has improved. Imagine that schools would be closed because not enough children and youngsters care about them. Music is not a business but a common good, like education and infrastructure.

    • MacroV says:

      Back when St. Louis was having a major financial crisis (late 90s, IIRC), I read a quote from an orchestra member along the lines of “We have a world class orchestra here, but nobody asked the public if they want one.”

  • Anders says:

    The BSO sounds really good now, and play with a level of commitment that you rarely hear in London’s orchestras. I don’t fault the London musicians, given the challenges of poor pay and working conditions they face. But it would be a disaster to gut this orchestra.

    • Allen says:

      “I don’t fault the London musicians”

      But that’s exactly what you are doing, given that in the BSO “up to 30% of the Orchestra is made up of part-time musicians who are paid less and receive no benefits”.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      The Royal College of Music, supposedly a world-class conservatory, pays its teachers a hefty 50 pounds per lesson. Humph.

  • MacroV says:

    It’s definitely true that Baltimore is a troubled city, and William Osborne’s regular cut-and-paste about all those non-US cities with multiple orchestras notwithstanding, even one 52-week orchestra is probably more than most major U.S. cities are interested in supporting.

    That said, as a DC-area resident I actually find the BSO a much more interesting orchestra to listen to than the NSO, and they play many of their programs in the Strathmore hall in Bethesda. So I’d be really sorry to see them diminished, whether in size, season-length, or artistic ambition. And you’d figure if Cleveland and Detroit can manage to sustain their orchestras – and St. Louis now has one of the country’s largest endowments – maybe Baltimore can resist this downsizing.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      The Baltimore Symphony is indeed a more disciplined orchestra than the NSO and the musicians deserve better. And while in Baltimore (the city, that is) the situation is indeed dire, its suburbs are rich and so is Bethesda / Montgomery County, its second home that you mention.

      Which makes me wonder how much fundraising is done in Montgomery County. I know that the Baltimore Symphony tries hard to reach out to the community, but how much of this is done in Bethesda?

    • True about US cities losing interest in supporting even one professional orchestra. Miami doesn’t have even one even though the metro population is 5 million and it is one of the world’s richest cities.

      Baltimore faces real challenges, 67% of the population is black and the orchestra about 95% white. One quarter of the population is below the poverty line. For the darker realities of the city I recommend the HBO series “The Wire” — one of the best and most socially relevant shows ever created.

      Part of the American tragedy is that its middle class population lives as if these realities don’t even exist. The blinkered worldview boggles the mind. And it lies at the heart of a political system so incapable of supporting both the arts and our cities, two entities which will always be deeply connected. And yes, I will repeat these truths as long as Americans continue to ignore the social realities around them.

      • YoYo MaMa says:

        The Twin Cities manage to have two full-time top-tier professional orchestras. It takes communal will and funder commitment. I suspect people on the East Coast are just too selfish. Now, if classical music could be tied to being a successful survivalist, the orchestras would probably flourish.

    • Baltimore had 344 homicides in 2015. That came to 52.5 per 100,000 people, a ratio 14 times higher the NYC’s. But St. Louis still holds the number one spot for murders per capita. Baltimore is just ahead of Detroit in place 3. See a relationship between the health of our urban environments and our orchestras?

    • The DEA reports that about 64,000 people in Baltimore are addicted to heroin — about 10% of the population. Europeans should note that these realities mean very little to Americans. The victims are overwhelmingly black, so it means little in our racially informed class system. All the above facts are the poisonous base upon which we try to build our orchestras.

  • Sharon says:

    Although Baltimore has large poverty pockets there has been a major, largely successful, effort to revive the city and especially the downtown business district and inner harbor. There has also been an effort to revive theater. Baltimore also has a number of middle class and upper middle class suburbs.
    Although the Washington DC symphony and other programs of the Kennedy Center are relatively near by if the Baltimore symphony goes there will be no professional orchestra in the state of Maryland.
    Many arts organizations, without a lot of cost to themselves, are reaching out to the community, especially the lower income community, with educational programs and receiving government funds for them, part of which can be used for administrative expenses. The Baltimore symphony seems ideally situated to do this.
    As far as big names are concerned the only time I actually attended one of their concerts Wynston Marsalis was their draw. What a disappointment (not the orchestra, Marsalis). Even to my untrained ear he sounded completely unprepared. I would have expected better from a high school student.

  • Jon H says:

    There are some clues in the musicians’ statement that this might be another game of how long the musicians can hold out for a better offer. It’s happened before in other cities.

    • Jon H says:

      All those orchestras have come out on the other side. Every case was a little different, but there’s something to be learned from those players.

  • I wonder if some musicians might prefer to have a solid summer free, to pursue other interests.

    • Bill says:

      Some might, sure. But the people with families (or without connections) might prefer to play more weeks of concerts at home instead of having to pack everyone into the Vista Cruiser for a summer away from home…

    • Musician says:

      Not if it means a 17% pay cut!

  • Bill says:

    Headline is very misleading. The orchestra’s headcount isn’t being slashed by 23%, the total compensation for the orchestra is being cut by reducing the length of the season.

    I am curious about how the work rule changes inflate the cut from a minimum of 17% to nearly 25% – not saying it isn’t possible, just would like to see where that figure comes from.

  • Luigi NoNoNo says:

    That is yet another example of bad management, and Marin All-slop must take some blame for not exerting more force for change. She has allowed the orchestra to go without a Principal Harp since Eileen Mason retired many years ago. Why is the administration apparently tying the orchestra to the city when it must obviously serve the metropolitan area, if not the entire state? Are they just jockeying to get more funding from the state? Or perhaps the rich people of Baltimore are copying the stingy rich people of Philadelphia?

  • Jaime Herrera says:

    Orchestra administrations do carry about twice as many people as they need and every orchestra conductor in the world is over paid (by a LOT.) Soloists? They are grossly overpaid, too. Players are made to suffer the consequences of incompetence in the administration – it happens every day.