Monday, July 29, 2019

About the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

All the talk about Baltimore these days made me wonder:

What is the latest with the Baltimore Symphony?

That is the picture up above from the BSO's Facebook page. Early July brought the news that the musicians were on strike. They had been locked out by the orchestra as of June 17. The orchestra has been digging into its endowment recently to meet payroll -- not good news.

As the classical music critic for The Buffalo News it would fall frequently to me to research situations like this. It is an aspect of my job that I do not miss. You get exhausted sifting through orchestras and their problems.

Which, let me say this, are nothing new. Chronicling Leonard Pennario's life, I have come to see how long before I was born, the conversation has been going on about are symphony orchestras relevant, do only older people like this music, can a city sustain an orchestra, etc. Pennario participated in the 1950s in a fund-raiser for the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Symphony's summer home, when it was, well, circling the bowl. Jascha Heifetz performed for the same fund-raiser. The best musicians pitched in. It worked, and the summer season, which had been canceled, went on after all. Pennario was the featured soloist for the jubilant opening concert. He was their hometown hero and they loved him.

Baltimore's summer season was canceled this year and as far as I can see it is still canceled.

As far as I can see there is no light yet at the end of the tunnel.

Marin Alsop, the BSO's music director, appeared just two days ago on this NPR game show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." Incredibly, there seems to be no mention that the Baltimore musicians are locked out -- or of any problems at all. I just skimmed the text but I skimmed it twice.

Maybe they taped that show far in advance.

Either that or, maybe the problems have been solved and I just cannot find any mention of it!

In case they have not, let us return to the New York Times story. Caution: If you check it out, be prepared to sink an hour or so into reading the comments. That is what happened to me!

My heart goes out to the Baltimore musicians and what they are dealing with. The problems are not unique and they are not necessarily permanent and unsolvable. But they pose big challenges.

One gentleman wrote on July 3:

We used to enjoy 1-2 trips a year there but stopped going when the panhandlers and window washers became more than annoying but seemed threatening. Police hands are tied, sad to see what has happened there. I wish it well as I may never return.

Other comments:

The quest for funding often reaches absurd levels, as shown by one of the article’s statements: “ And [the Symphony] has creatively reached out to its community, starting OrchKids, which offers music instruction, homework tutors, after-school snacks and dinner to more than 1,300 children in neighborhoods that struggle with poverty and violence.

This is a ridiculous and insupportable example of mission creep; why should symphony orchestras be involved in providing homework tutors, after-school snacks and dinner to poor kids? These social services are the province of schools and welfare agencies, not symphonies or museums or theaters.

Interesting. I can see how an initiative like that, while well-meaning, could be very costly. Unless the orchestra were getting government money for it, who knows. This is also interesting: Wikipedia says that the Baltimore Symphony is the only major U.S. orchestra founded as an arm of the municipal government. So maybe things like this are a tradition with it.

I like inside-baseball talk like this:

Just imagine the cost of sending an entire orchestra and staff to Europe for a tour, as the Board approved for 2018.  Everyone loves to go on tour, especially Music Director (Marin) Alsop, who insisted on it.  Tours are how conductors audition for their next job, and she is likely to jump off the sinking BSO ship when her contract ends.  A fiscally responsible Board would have said no.

This Board has failed and must be removed.  

There is a good series of stories Anne Midgette wrote in the Washington Post which I cannot read because of the paywall.

It also appears that an orchestra called the National Philharmonic is closing in Bethesda, Md.

Perhaps that will free up more money for the Baltimore Symphony. I think ultimately it will come down to that, more funding from somewhere -- a foundation, a philanthropist.

We like to talk about the audience in situations like this because we are the audience. And concerns like crime, traffic, and time are all real and figure in. Programming, too. Many times over the last 10 years I have read about some onerous Baltimore Symphony concert with some heavy new work and thought, you could not pay me enough to sit through that.

But over years of covering the Buffalo Philharmonic I learned that ticket sales are a relatively small piece of the puzzle.

Buffalo is so lucky. Our orchestra has been in the black for some time now which is a big reason I was charged so often with reporting on other orchestras and things going wrong with them. People in Buffalo do not rejoice in anyone's misfortune. God knows we have had our share. But Buffalo rejoices in the BPO the way it rejoices in the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres and the chicken wing festival. It is a lightning rod of city pride.

But just to keep things in perspective, the Buffalo Philharmonic is not as lucky as our Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which has been getting dizzying sums from some philanthropist whose name I forget but whose pockets are bottomless. We are talking gazillions of dollars. I wish that guy had a soft spot for Beethoven and Mozart, I do not mind telling you that. If the Albright-Knox collapses under the weight of all that money maybe we can send him in Baltimore's direction.

I do think the Baltimore Symphony's problems will be solved, somehow.

The musicians have set up a donation site here, with updates.

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