Josh Kurtz: The Political Education of the BSO

Peter Kjome, president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has been a regular presence in Annapolis. BSO photo

On March 17, when many Annapolis denizens will be doing the traditional St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl — or wishing they were — members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be setting up their music stands and playing a free concert in the rotunda of the House Office Building.

Joining them as guest conductors: House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).

For the past few weeks, the BSO has been traveling around the Baltimore region, giving concerts in places where it usually doesn’t go, like New Psalmist Baptist Church and Morgan State University. It’s part of the venerable cultural organization’s stepped-up outreach, an acknowledgement by BSO leaders that they’re part of the community and not just an island unto themselves.

But March 17 in Annapolis is something altogether different: A fairly naked — and perfectly understandable — attempt to build goodwill with the people who hold some of the purse strings.

“They’ll be playing right outside my office,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City). “I love it.”

McIntosh is already doing her part to help the beleaguered orchestra. On Tuesday, she introduced last-minute legislation to provide millions in supplemental funding for the BSO over the next five years.

“They deserve it,” McIntosh said in an interview.

Last year, the legislature approved $3.2 million in emergency funding for the symphony over a two-year period, but Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) cut $1.6 million from the budget, without warning, last year, and did not provide the additional $1.6 million in this year’s budget.

McIntosh’s bill quickly jumped through legislative hoops Tuesday and was referred to her committee, where it no doubt will sail smoothly.

The leaders of the Baltimore Symphony — along with its long roster of donors, boosters and musicians — are hardly political naifs. Through its long, rich history, the BSO has been buttressed by some of the most powerful captains of industry, philanthropists and politicians that the state has ever known.

But Hogan’s decision to cut that funding was an unexpected punch in the nose, and came in the midst of a protracted contract dispute between the BSO’s management and players, which came while the symphony had been bleeding red ink for more than a decade. The end result was a 16-week lockout that led to the cancellation of the symphony’s popular summer season.

The BSO has been scrambling to adapt to its not-so-brave and not-so-new world — trying to exist as a high-cost, high-brow institution in a city wracked by poverty and violence. The legislature created a work group last year to come up with ways to stabilize the organization, headed by former Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Edward J. Kasemeyer, and the task force last month outlined a plan for the symphony to seek an additional $15 million in public and private funds over the next six years.

Just as significant, Kasemeyer has become a Sherpa for BSO officials, schooling them in the peculiar ways of Annapolis. Symphony managers have become a regular presence in and around the State House this legislative session, often with lobbyists from the plugged-in firm Rifkin Weiner Livingston LLC in tow.

But nothing ever comes easy for cash-starved cultural institutions in this day and age. Just as the BSO is trying to build enthusiasm and support for its push for long-term solvency — not to mention elevated relevance — word came last week that Marin Alsop, the symphony’s world-renowned musical director, will be retiring when her contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 season (though she will still make some appearances with the BSO).

So with all this as a backdrop, the orchestra will be performing a 45-minute concert in the House building in two weeks, in an airy space with untested acoustics, in what is likely to be another in a series of busy days in the state capital.

“The BSO is excited to visit Annapolis on March 17 and hopes to make these special performances an annual tradition,” Linda Moxley, the symphony’s vice president of marketing and communications told Maryland Matters in an email Tuesday.

Moxley said she did not know how the guest conductors — Jones and Ferguson — were selected.

Ferguson, whose musical pedigree begins and ends with childhood piano lessons, said Tuesday that he’s “a little nervous” about his forthcoming gig, “because I have no idea what to expect.”

That sense of fear and uncertainty, no doubt, extends to the symphony’s leaders and supporters.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.