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Josh Kurtz: Notes of Dissonance Tell a Story

Musicians picket in front of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore last month. Facebook photo

After months of acrimony, some of the key players in the dispute between the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra management and musicians came together the other day on the supposedly neutral ground of Annapolis.

But even there, with a well-respected former state senator presiding over the proceedings, it was hard for the two sides not to air their dirty laundry – and their grievances – in an uncomfortably public way.

In one corner, figuratively, were BSO managers and board members. In the other, musicians who are active in the union, known as the players’ committee. And in the exasperated middle were former Senate Budget and Taxation chairman Edward Kasemeyer (D); Ken Skrzesz, the head of the Maryland Arts Council; and Fred Lazarus IV, the former president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who is working on ways to make the symphony more sustainable.

This dispute, sadly, says a lot – not just about the state of one of the state’s leading cultural institutions and its role in a struggling city, but about the state of the arts in Maryland, about budget priorities, and about the state government’s ability to exert pressure on private entities.

Officially, this was the inaugural meeting of a work group that the legislature put together to discuss ways of securing the long-term fiscal health of the BSO, which has been operating at a deficit for the past few years. But it came, coincidentally if not necessarily propitiously, at a time when contract negotiations between the orchestra and the musicians’ union have collapsed; management locked the players out in mid-June and canceled the symphony’s summer schedule.

“It’s sort of an awkward situation that we’re in,” said Kasemeyer, tapped by legislative leaders to head the workgroup.

That was an understatement.

This isn’t strictly a management-vs.-labor situation, with the state called in as an unofficial mediator. The state, too, is an actor in this drama.

The BSO is a longtime recipient of state largesse, and the state government is one of the most generous in the country when it comes to backing arts organizations.

“It is clear that without the state of Maryland, we would not have the orchestra that we have today,” said Peter T. Kjome, the BSO’s CEO.

Josh Kurtz

This year, the legislature tried to inject an extra $1.6 million into the symphony’s coffers. But Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) withheld the funds, observing that he did not want to throw good money after bad, with the BSO operating in the red. That announcement hit the symphony – its management and musicians, along with civic leaders – like a bomb.

On Monday, the Maryland Democratic Party referenced the BSO funding in a litany of complaints about Hogan, saying the orchestra had “been handicapped” by the governor. That’s a bit of a sideshow, but it illustrates how an existential crisis facing a century-old cultural institution cannot be divorced from politics. And the BSO funding is part of a larger pot of money of legislative priorities that Hogan is refusing to release.

Lay these petty politics aside, and everyone knows the clock is ticking for the BSO. If a new contract deal hasn’t been hammered out, if the orchestra isn’t back on stage in a matter of weeks, Lazarus warned, “we’re going to have a lot of trouble putting Humpty Dumpty together again.”

An organization like the BSO, Lazarus pointed out, that is so dependent on ticket sales and donations, cannot dig itself out of its hole, much less thrive, “while we’re in disarray” and not putting a product on the stage.

“We have to get people to realize in this state, in this city, in this region, how important this institution is,” he said. “And you don’t have to love classical music to appreciate it.”

Someone at the meeting invoked the name of Calman J. “Buddy” Zamoiski, the Baltimore business leader who led the BSO board of directors for years and occasionally badgered his fellow philanthropists and capitalists to pony up and help the symphony – and yes, attend the concerts, whether they were classical music enthusiasts or not.

Zamoiski threw his weight around in multiple ways – including in Annapolis, where in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s he worked with powerful Baltimore lawmakers like Barbara A. Hoffman and the late Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings to provide substantial funding for a new concert hall in Montgomery County.

The Music Center at Strathmore Hall is the home-away-from-home for the BSO, and the orchestra plays about 35 dates a year there when it isn’t based at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. In fact, the BSO is the only major orchestra in the U.S. with a second, season-long home (many play summer seasons, as the BSO traditionally has at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County).

As Lazarus pointed out, the BSO’s labor impasse and financial woes radiate beyond Baltimore, hitting Strathmore hard. And earlier this summer, another Strathmore tenant, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, teetered on the edge of financial ruin and required a $500,000 bailout from businessman Jim Kelly – who took over the operation in the process. Which makes us wonder about the financial stability of Strathmore – but that’s another story.

In late May, I attended one of the last BSO performances before the lockout, at the Meyerhoff, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, the versatile, immensely talented and spellbindingly charismatic American roots musician. With an energetic young conductor, a small collection of BSO string players opened the show with a range of classical pieces, followed by Giddens and another folk musician, followed by an innovative collaboration between Giddens and the orchestra.

It wasn’t quite “Roll Over, Beethoven,” but it was a reminder that a symphony orchestra can adapt to the times, that it doesn’t have to be stodgy or traditional. The musicianship was superb, the performance crackled with intensity, and the audience was buzzing.

When will we see the BSO on stage again? And can this institution right itself? So many conversations have to happen on so many levels, but they don’t seem to be taking place, and Kasemeyer’s evident confusion seemed to say it all.

“I’m not sure where to go from here,” he said.

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Josh Kurtz: Notes of Dissonance Tell a Story