The bad times have begun: Boston Symphony sacks 50

The bad times have begun: Boston Symphony sacks 50


norman lebrecht

August 22, 2020

The orchestra has laid off almost one-third of its administrative staff ‘in direct response to the devastating financial effects of COVID-19’.

Press release:

As a result of lost revenue and an undetermined timetable for return to full operations, the organization will lay off 50 employees out of a current full-time administrative staff of 180 (30 additional positions have been frozen or left vacant since March 2020). The remaining full-time staff will number 130. The plan at this time also includes eight full-time staff members being furloughed at various periods from September through December. The layoffs and furloughs have been determined following an analysis of the orchestra’s operations and the staffing needed given the reduced workload during the upcoming period of live performance hiatus.



  • Anon says:

    180 administrative positions? Geez. That’s more positions than the orch. has. I play in a full time pro orch and we have like 5 full time administrative people. Any additional work is done by outside contractors or collaborators.

    • Concertgoer says:

      Remember, BSO Inc. also runs Tanglewood, operates a second orchestra, and is a landlord. The number (actually 210) was not so unreasonable.

      • Anon says:

        I’ve seen the job announcements for Tanglewood administrative positions & they are seasonal. Most are summer – only jobs.

        The second orchestra, Boston Pops, is basically a pops season of Boston Symphony. Same orchestra, same venue, same personnel, just pops programming.

        210 full time administrative positions is over the top, IMHO. Certainly, there are plenty of tangential responsibilities to running an orch., but they don’t require full time, tenured staff to do them. That’s over a 2 to 1 ratio of administrators to orchestra personnel, which is absurd.

        • Vance Koven says:

          That’s actually not correct. There’s a short season of Pops performances by the BSO-minus-princpals, but a longer one of the “Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra,” which is made up of freelancers. So there really are two orchestras.

          • Anon says:

            Point taken. Understood. But I also got it wrong when I said a 2 to one ratio. If the actual no. of BSO administrative positions is 210 as stated below, there are 3 administrators for every BSO musician. Kind of a high ratio no matter how many orchestras they’re running, isn’t it?

      • V. Lind says:

        Wonder how many are in the business of fundraising (or ‘development,’ as I believe they prefer to call it these days). That’s one department that will probably be increasing staff levels after the pandemic is over — can’t be easy right now, when there is nothing on offer except online stuff. But all the orchestras and other arts organisations, especially in the US where they are so dependent upon donors, sponsors, etc., are going to have to come up with all sorts of imaginative new schemes both to entice people back into the halls and to support in general.

        The huge untapped “market,” again to use the seemingly preferred word, is obviously the minority communities. And to get a piece of that, they are going to have to employ a lot more minorities, both in admin and on their stages. BLM may see some of its goals conflating with those of orchestras after all! Could change it to mean Black Live Music…

        • Enquiring Mind says:

          The BSO has a nearly 500 million dollar endowment. Not hurting but who can afford to give workers 1 year paid vacations? As far as your fundraising ideas, ask yourself how much of the half-billion came from Roxbury/Dorchester?

          • Peter San Diego says:

            Friendraising precedes fundraising. The vast majority of funds always comes from a tiny minority of the donors; yet the smaller donors are also highly valued.

      • Skippy says:

        Not only does the BSO operate a second orchestra (Pops Esplanade), but it operates Tanglewood, which is not only a performance venue but a summer music academy. (Having attended TMC many moons ago, I can tell you there are many moving parts to that operation, and a certain level of staffing is required to make it run.) The BSO also has a really well-developed in-house media group responsible for recordings, video and the like. Then there’s publicity, community relations, the web team, property management (how many orchestras own a fleet of seven-gang lawnmowers?), donor “development” (the world’s biggest orchestra endowment doesn’t just happen on its own), event planning, library/archives, vendor management…it’s not hard to imagine how those numbers add up.

        • Anon says:

          Skippy, I am also a TMC alum & the “moving parts” you refer there are mostly seasonal, summertime jobs. I also used to work as an usher at Symphony Hall when I was in school. My room-mate was a Pops waitress. We were struggling music students who worked part time there & were paid a low hourly wage for the privilege of hearing concerts free. We were NOT full time employees.

          Many of the tangential activiites you mention are or should be done by contract or part time workers.

          And again, this “2nd orchestra” which everyone is going on about is Boston Pops, which is a parallel operation which uses most of the same personnel as BSO.

          • skippy says:

            @Anon, yes and no. Richard Ortner, who was the chief administrator of TMC when I was there, once gave me a verbal tour d’horizon of what was involved in running Tanglewood. Supervising seasonal workers, as I recall, was the least of it. I don’t recall the details now (30 years later) but I do remember thinking, “Man, this is complicated.” In addition, Tanglewood administration is a year round commitment: Yes, the festival runs for eight weeks, but the planning (etc.) isn’t something one conjures up the week before the first concert.

            Also, the Pops Esplanade orchestra (in which I played long ago) is not comprised of BSO personnel. They are two separate entities.

          • Anon says:

            Of course he did. He always talked a good talk. I also knew him quite well. Ortner was one guy. He did not have a big staff for what he did. The people he supervised were students, not employees. Who, BTW, technically, were paying for the privilege of being there unless they got scholarships.

            Yes, Tanglewood is a year round commitment but look on the BSO page for actual Tanglewood jobs & you’ll see that most of them are summer only hires. They are not working at Symphony Hall during the regular season & they would not be included in this 50 person layoff.

            Yes, OK, my bad on the Esplanade Orch. When I was in Boston it was considered part of the Pops & under the BSO umbrella.

            Look, I get your loyalty to BSO. I have the same loyalty. Sounds like we probably even crossed paths at Twood, but 210 administrative positions is just plain excessive. So much of what they do can be contracted out, or done by part timers. It doesn’t make sense.

          • Skippy says:

            @Anon it’s not a question of “loyalty.” It’s just a question of facts. Of course the BSO hires each year for summer jobs. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

            Actually, I’m now curious, could you post a link to the “BSO page for actual Tanglewood jobs”? I’d like to see what they’re advertising, for whatever reason, I’m unable to find the page myself. Thanks.

          • Anon says:

            Hi, it’s probably because they’re not hiring. I used to look around May, well before Twood started up. The time commitment they asked for was from May to late August or so as I recall.

    • trill says:

      Their annual budget is $100m+. It takes a lot of people to run an organization that big even after you pay all the orchestra members.

      People who know a very little bit about classical music flatter themselves that they could take over as executive director of the BSO tomorrow and they would know how many employees the org should have and all those other details.

  • George says:

    180 administrative staff?
    Seems a lot to me, compared to European Orchestras. Still, very bad news.

    PS: Doesn’t the Vienna Philharmonic e.g. have two secretaries only?

    • Tamino says:

      well, Vienna Phil has all its administrative work; HR, accounting etc., done as their part of Staatsoper. They also do “some” concerts on top of that as the private entity “Wiener Philharmoniker”.
      The Musikverein as their main symphony concert venue is managed by its own staff again.
      Yes, they are very thinly staffed, but the comparison is moot.
      I imagine Boston must do a lot in house that is outsourced for the Vienna Phil. administrative wise.

      • Concertgoer says:

        That’s right. And BSO Inc. employs (in normal times) probably 40 people involved with raising money — for example in writing grant applications and arranging parties and other events intended to procure donations. None of this is central to the work of Europe’s large orchestras. BSO Inc. is, by the way, No. 1 in the U.S. in gross receipts.

  • fflambeau says:

    The headline should make clear it is administrative staff.

  • Anon says:

    I’m going to reserve judgment until after I personally hear from William Osborne or Jennifer Aniston.  Both know how to get a hold of me.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    No bueno, but it’s better to reduce administration than reduce the number of players.

  • JJC says:

    How many administrative staff did the BSO have in the 1920’s, the 1950’s the 1960’s? They thrived then. Today, there are nearly twice as many bureaucrats as musicians and what, exactly, do all these paper-pushers do? They tell us that we are privileged and out of touch with the community and must swiftly change what we do. They are so much more important than we are, the musicians. Just think about how much money these phonies suck up. Of course, I am not singling out the great BSO, we are all being eaten by this pernicious cancer.

    • MacroV says:

      Well, they have to sell tickets, raise money (that’s probably a good number right there), run Tanglewood, manage a second orchestra (the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra), manage Symphony Hall both as its own venue and as a rental. Between BSO, Tanglewood, and Pops, that’s a lot of programs to put together and manage every year. Apparently they need 50 people just to keep the orchestra performing; I assume those are primarily the people being laid off/furloughed. Sounds like a lot, but they do a lot.

  • Nick2 says:

    I have to ask one question – how is it possible for any major orchestra to have 180 full time people ON STAFF! Something seems to be very wrong!

    • John Borstlap says:

      When an orchestra is considered a business instead of a medium for an art form which serves the common good, and when it gets lots of money, it will attract people who want to profit from it. And then, the music and the players are the means to an end.

  • Stereo says:

    What a ridiculous number of admin staff.

  • Tamino says:

    Maybe Corona is a good opportunity to come down to a more reasonable admin staff size.
    Maybe they should focus more on a digital concert hall kind of media presence though.

  • Pablo says:

    There are remarkable differences between the size of management teams in orchestras publicly funded, and those dependent on private sources. In the former ones, the relation between management team and orchestra usually follows the ratio 1:10, while in the latter this can rise until reaching a 1:1 proportion. This is due to the very nature of privately funded orchestras, what leads them to devote a remarkable amount of resources to ensuring financing over time, from different sources: foundation and capital increase operations, fundraising and development activities, sponsorship and revenues attributable to commercial work, etc.

    • Anon says:

      Pablo, there are 65 full time musicians listed on Boston Symphony’s roster right now. A reader above has confirmed that there are actually 210 administrative positions. That is over a 3 to 1 ratio of administrative personnel to orchestra players. 3 administrators for every orchestra musician. What’s wrong with this picture?

      • skippy says:

        @Anon Here’s a link to the roster. I count 97 musicians. (I counted fast, so I may be off by one or two, but it’s close to 100, in any event). That does not include music director, ass’t conductors, etc.

        Why are you spreading misinformation?

        • Anon says:

          Oops. You’re right. I only counted the 1st page. I thought it was a low no.! Yeah, I guess you can tell it’s been back since the days of Richard Ortner that I was at TMC – my age & bad eyesight are showing! Thanks for that very important correction! Sorry about that!

      • CA says:

        I’m quite sure that there are way more than 65 fulltime musicians in the BSO. It’s probably closer to 105-110. Their collective bargaining agreement would spell out the required minimum number of personnel. Second tier orchestras have 58-65.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, but having more staff than players is absurd.

      • Skippy says:

        Unless you count the Pops, as well, in which case you’re looking approx. 200 instrumentalists.

        Not sure I would as Pops aren’t full-time positions. But I suppose the argument could be made since we’re all just messing around here.

        Honestly, I have no idea of they’re overstaffed or not. But it’s a major cultural organization with lots of tentacles. (In other words, we’re not talking Grand Rapids Symphony here). Given its institutional heft, that number just doesn’t strike me as absurd.

        If we were talking 500 employees, then, yeah, I’d wonder what the heck was up with that.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Your statement is true for orchestras that can rely on stable state funding and/or on firm long-range commitments from major donors. I bet many of those commitments are becoming shakier, the longer the epidemic lasts.

      • IC225 says:

        No, it isn’t. Having (say) three first oboists on the books makes no difference at all to the artistic result. Having three fundraisers or marketers potentially triples the income they can raise to pay those oboists’ salaries.

        There’s a certain kind of orchestral musician who likes to moan about “excessive” admin staff numbers. In my experience these tend to be the same players who sit immobile in their chairs, refusing to play a note until a member of admin staff has been summoned to move their music stand 5cm closer.

  • Nick says:

    I will risk it: maybe it is not all that “bad” times for BSO.
    Important is to keep musicians and principal managers.
    180!? It is like the big government – useless.

  • Yossel says:

    Decades ago, before I married and had kids, I was a youngish orphan of moneyed parents. I decided to make the NY Philharmonic my sole beneficiary. I mentioned my intention to a friend involved in the business end of the music world. He took me aside and said, “Schmuck! Unless you specify a specific use for the funds, the money will be frittered away by someone in administration creating a couple of positions with prestigious-sounding titles for his/her cronies. It’s a common occurrence”. And so it goes.

  • Anon says:

    Just adding here that according to social media, these 50 layed off administrators are not doing too badly. Again, without specifying that they are administrative staff and not members of the orchestra, a go fund me campaign was launched for them yesterday which so far has collected over $30,000 in donations to be divided among them. You can tell from the comments that people think they are donating to layed off BSO musicians.

    Starting salary for BSO musicians in 2016 is listed at $132,000. Principal players earn in the $250,000 range & Concertmaster Malcom Lowe, who recently left, earned $415,000 in 2016.

    And people are donating to a go fund me campaign for these players because the headlines aren’t clear.

    • Anon is a joke says:

      Lmao Anon – are you some bitter person who would never say anything they’re writing on a screen to someone in person? Most, if not all, of the donors on that GoFundMe page are BSO donors, current employees, and musicians. They all know they’re donating to a fund for laid of administrative staff. Also, those comments you’re referring to? All made by former staff, donors, or musicians. You should start citing sources instead of pulling inferences out of your ass.

    • IC225 says:

      Appalling! People are giving to worthless, parasitic unemployed managers under the impression that they are helping musicians? Disgraceful!

      I just bet you’re the kind of person who thinks listening to classical music elevates the soul and makes you a better human being.

    • DB says:

      I disagree. I know the exceedingly competent staff member who started that for her fellow staff. It is completely above board and clearly specified that it is for staff. And the funds will be distributed with accountability.

  • Derek says:

    It may be that the administration staff number is high (I don’t know what total duties they have to cover), but I have sympathy for the 50 individuals who are losing their jobs; – a sad consequence of the pandemic.

  • Michael says:

    The BSO includes 3 orchestras (Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, and Boston Pops Esplanade), an Academy (Tanglewood Music Center), chorus, two large venues, education and outreach, etc.
    The seemingly big number of staff includes ushers, technicians, security, gift shop, maintenance, audio, stage, IT, education… so not that many after all.

    • Anon says:

      That’s BS. The Academy is run by Boston University, the 3 orchestras are basically the same personnel and staff, many of the tech crew are contract workers. And as I mentioned above, having worked there as an usher myself, I can tell you that the ushers are part time and are paid a low hourly wage.

      I wouldn’t argue with a large fund raising staff, but even fund raising can be outsourced. 210 is excessive. No wonder US orchestras can’t stay in business.

      • Skippy says:

        @Anon flat out false. The academy is run B.U. but the Tanglewood Music Center fellows program, from which the enterprise derives its renown, is run by the BSO. B.U. has nothing to do with it.

        And, of course, as I said in response to your other post, the Pops Esplanade orchestra has its own personnel. It is not comprised of BSO musicians.

        Didn’t you say you were a TMC fellow? How could you not know this?

      • The Tanglewood Music Center (I’m an alum) is a summer fellowship program run directly by the BSO administration, not by Boston University. BU administers the BU Tanglewood Institute which is for high school students on its own Lenox campus up the street.

  • PL says:

    If you look at their website you will see the largest departments are development and marketing, two of the most vital departments for keeping a symphony orchestra (or really any non-profit performing arts institution) in the US running.

    • Nick2 says:

      Having looked at the list on the website, I remain staggered at the numbers. Since employment involves not just salaries but also healthcare benefits, pension contributions, vacations etc,. I cannot help but feel quite a number of these jobs could be outsourced to companies who would do as good if not better a job at a lesser overall price.

      • Mick the Knife says:

        Would you rather have an employee of the BSO call and tell you how they need your support or a telemarketer from Mumbai who pauses in order to recall the purpose of their phone call to you? I would guess the latter is going to be more successful.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    Interesting indeed.

    To remember, yes the BSO operates multiple orchestras and venues so it is not fair to compare it to orchestras that have only one operation.

    That said, my bet is of these 180 positions, a vast majority are filled by young administrative wannabes getting paid lower wages than what they could make in the private sector.

    The BSO would be great to have on a resume and there is much to be learned there in terms of long term success and fiscal responsibility.

  • . Jonathan Kleefield, MD says:

    Good afternoon, it is indeed a sad time for anyone, whether a musician or support staff, to lose their employment. Regrettably, some of the previous comments have a rather nasty tone. Being on the receiving end of a sudden dismissal might make them be a little more compassionate about this announcement. However, this pandemic has brought about the opportunity to “re-imagine” music performance. While I have been a symphony subscriber for over 50 years, this morning I was treated to over 4 hours of the most fantastic music-making from around the globe courtesy of their contributions to You Tube. Artists have utilized the magical means through which we can now communicate in ways that no live concert can provide- up close photography of them performing from many different viewpoints and crystalline sound- no coughing, other extraneous noise, and thus a way to really appreciate their virtuosity. More important, the repertoire chosen is far more varied than the limited fair we usually have at the symphony concert hall- endless repetition of the “core” European music, with the only major variation being “world premieres.” Thus, huge swaths of wonderful music, e.g. from Delius, Bax, Milhaud, Simpson, Piston, Herrmann, etc.,etc. never receive a hearing. This is programming stagnation that over time will guarantee the unplanned obsolescence of such great orchestras. I’ve spoken to players who would love to branch out into such music and are never given the chance to do so.

    So through the digital medium, as has been so successful with recorded music, we might use the Pandemic as a means to revitalize live performances, once this scourge recedes into memory. The Berlin Philharmonic has done it with their streaming channel, and we in the USA should think about embracing a similar path. At least the Met has given us this chance. And finally, anybody who does play for our enjoyment must be financially compensated for their efforts. Again, the on-line medium makes it easy to do so. We should thank God so many clever and resourceful people are out there to make all of this possible, both technically and artistically.

    • Mick the Knife says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more. The Berlin Phil even has fantastic socially distanced performances.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        I agree. From Australia I’ve completely distanced myself from the PC Berliner Philharmoniker by cancelling my subscription to the Digital Concert Hall.

        • True North says:

          Stupid thing to say. Even if true, you’re only depriving yourself of brilliant music-making by such a pointless political statement. Nobody else cares, and the BPO will get along just fine without you.

  • Greg says:

    Anon clearly is not familiar with the orchestras under the BSO umbrella. Allow me to clarify. There is, of course, the BSO. There is also the Boston Pops, which is essentially the BSO minus a number of the principal players. There is also the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, which is entirely staffed by freelance musicians who are not regular members of the BSO. There are also multiple things that take place at Tanglewood. There is the Tanglewood Music Center, which is funded by the BSO and provides fellowships for the musicians it engages. There is also the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, which is a program for talented high school students. This is funded by Boston University. BSO, Inc. is flush with cash and has the largest endowment of any US orchestra. As I see it, they are welcome to spend it any way they choose to. The musicians are paid well, I imagine the employees are paid well, and the orchestra is not in debt. Even if their structure is top heavy or admin heavy (and I’m not saying it is) it is their prerogative. I have performed with the Esplanade orchestra and studied at both BUTI and TMC. I will be eternally grateful for whatever organizational acumen led to those opportunities being available to me.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    He who pays the piper calls the tune. I’m allowing it. The only antidote to woke authoritarianism. The less dictators employed the better.

  • Sharon B Long says:

    I know that local governments are really hurting because of the loss of their tax base but since Tanglewood is such an important economic engine and creates so much tourism (for ex. prior to Covid my over eighty parents went their every year with a senior citizens tour which included Jacobs Pillow and Williamstown) wouldn’t it make sense for the government to take it over, at least the the management of the physical grounds and buildings? I’m thinking of a model of something like the Saratoga Performing Arts Center which is a state park in New York State, the summer home of the New York City Ballet, and brings in various orchestras all summer.
    I believe that Chicago ( I forget the name of the venue) has a similar setup with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

    • MacroV says:

      The Ravinia Festival hires the CSO to perform in the summer; it’s a completely separate organization.

    • Skippy says:

      @SharonBLong What would that accomplish? Have you been to Tanglewood? The place is immaculate, really well run. I’m not sure the Commomwealth of Massachusetts would do a better job; in fact, it probably wouldn’t.

      Furthermore, how would the state “take it over”? Tanglewood isn’t for sale. So, seize it via eminent domain? On what grounds?

  • BP says:

    I have to ask, why has no one on their 180-strong staff been able to improve on the BSO’s horrendous website ?

  • Anon says:

    I can’t comment on the specifics of the BSO but wish this site and many others would stop referring to staff laid off/made redundant as ‘sacked’, a term which implies fault by the worker.

  • Allen says:

    Had a look at the LSO website out of curiosity. They list 87 admin staff in total. That includes 14 to run LSO St Lukes (effectively, a small concert hall/rehearsal/educational facility), 18 for LSO Discovery (education and outreach) and 6 for LSO Live (LSO’s record label).

    Doesn’t seem excessive to me.

  • richard graber says:

    You could argue it’s too many but the fact that that many people are involved with a great arts organization like BSO is a good thing. It seems like a ball park number to me that is a little high but reasonable. The bigger takeaway is that it is unfortunate for those folks laid off and that the organization obviously doesn’t expect to return to large or semi-large concerts for a long time.

  • Save the MET says:

    The BSO has an enormous endowment, some $465 million on hand, August 2019, which is beyond their operating budget. This is certainly a year to use it to save their employees.

  • Marge O. says:

    maybe the us can sack its’ trillion dollar a year war mongering military and authentically support the arts? wishful thinking for the us empire.