In many ways, 2020 has been a year we’d all like to forget, but it is helpful when we get discouraged to remember all that we’ve accomplished this year. The Baltimore Symphony Musicians remember vividly the difficulties of the past. We were walking a picket line just last summer, and in 12 short months we have made enormous strides in so many areas. We have established a new decision-making process with the establishment of the Vision Committee; participated in a work group at the state level led by former state Senator Ed Kasemeyer; shepherded a new bill through the Maryland General Assembly that would have provided for ongoing bridge funding for the BSO; engaged Michael Kaiser to help us write a 5-year strategic plan; and subsequently worked together to raise a nearly $10 million transformation fund to provide for a bright future for the BSO.
And then came COVID-19. We had a difficult decision about how to move forward. Thankfully all of the work we did to establish a collaborative approach to our future propelled us forward in the face of a scary and uncertain future. BSO leadership and the musicians agreed that we should continue to stay the course that Michael Kaiser laid out for the institution, which included getting a long-term agreement. We met continuously beginning on March 20 all the way through the summer until finally reaching a tentative settlement on August 27. This historic agreement provides for many things that are essential for the continued health of the BSO. We agreed to sacrificial salary cuts in the 2020–21 season of between 26% and 35% for most of the musicians; however, this historic 5-year agreement makes great progress on rebuilding the complement that has been badly depleted over the last 10 years due to financial constraints. The stability of a long-term agreement will not only drive donor confidence, but it will allow many of the newer musicians to put down roots and consider Baltimore a place they can build a life for themselves and their families. Finally, it’s important to recognize that the salary gains in the later years of the contract will allow us to attract world-class musicians.
All of these things are worth celebrating in a year when there is so much bad news. Another thing to celebrate is the debut of our new digital season. BSO Sessions began streaming on October 17. Each week a new episode features the orchestra performing on stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall along with interviews and snippets of rehearsal footage. It gives the viewer a glimpse behind the curtain of what goes into the incredible musical experience of a major symphony orchestra. Each episode is available to stream for $10 per episode, or viewers can purchase a monthly, all-access plan for $20 a month. In addition to BSO Sessions, the BSO will be offering a new virtual line-up of educational concerts and interactive curriculum-connected content for students, teachers, and families navigating the challenges of virtual learning. Violinist Kevin Smith put it beautifully: “It’s such a pleasure to be back on stage with all of my colleagues, and hear the warm sonorities in the Meyerhoff after so many months away. I’m looking forward to the day that we can play music live for our amazing audiences.”
While many of our colleagues returned to the stage to participate in BSO Sessions, those that fell into high-risk categories and who had notes from their primary care physicians attesting to that fact, have been able to stay on the payroll by performing at-home activities on a regular basis. This has been a developing palette of activities, but it has allowed the institution to connect with many of our stakeholders virtually, including the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra and many of our supporters. The list of ways that we have been reinventing ourselves in this most unpredictable year continues to grow. It has been a year to remember even though we look forward to putting this pandemic behind us. Most of all, we feel grateful that our work at the outset of the calendar year positioned us to be able to weather the COVID storm when so many of our peer orchestras have struggled to stay solvent.
Note: the author is a percussionist, chair of the Players’ Committee, and ICSOM delegate for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.