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Pain in Baltimore

0 Robert Levine

Coverage of the impact of concessions on musicians is not usually as explicit as in this article by Tim Smith for the Baltimore Sun:

Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have agreed to take yet another salary hit in an effort to help the organization weather the continued effects of the recession. The players accepted a freeze for the 2010-11 season and a 16.6 percent reduction for the two seasons after that. By the 2012-2013 season, base pay for BSO members will be $67,600 — essentially the same as it was in 2001.

“We’re devastated,” said Jane Marvine, an English horn player and spokesperson for the Players’ Committee. “In the last decade, two times we had great contracts that were unfulfilled. This sets us back a decade. We have everything going for us. The talent is on the stage and in the [administration]. We have a music director committed to expanding the orchestra as a resource for the community. We have a collaborative spirit. So it seems impossible to us that we have not been able to thrive as a major American orchestra in one of the wealthiest states.”

It’s one thing to have to take cuts when there are internal issues. It’s quite another to do so when, as Marvine suggests, all the pieces ought to be in place to move forward. Baltimore has a competent staff and a bright, committed music director who’s also a hot property - and they’re still having to take big cuts.

But these are not normal times. We were in the same situation - when the appointment of our new music director was announced in early 2008, the only question in our minds (and I suspect management’s as well) was just how good our new contract would be. When we actually started negotiating a year later, the bottom had fallen out of the economy and and we took cuts that would have been unimaginable a year before.

What’s unusual about Tim Smith’s article is that it gets to the sense of pain and loss experienced by musicians who take concessions. It’s not just the money, although that’s bad enough - given marginal tax rates, the net after-tax loss is significantly less than the 16.6% quoted in the article.

What really stings, I think, is the sense that musicians’ work is increasingly less valued by society. In a culture which places as high a priority on personal earning power as does ours, these kinds of cuts can feel like an attack on one’s value as a member of society.

Drew McManus raises another important issue as well: an “experimental Fellows program in September 2011 for highly talented post-conservatory musicians to perform with and be mentored by the BSO.” In the context of cutting wages and not filling open positions, having “Fellows” play with the orchestra on a regular basis can start to look like replacing professional musicians with unpaid (or poorly paid) graduate students.

I have no doubt that those on the ground in Baltimore are keenly aware of this possibility, and there are certainly ways to structure such a program so that its value is primarily educational and not simply economic. But it’s worth remembering that the reason that there is a pool of competent potential Fellows is that there is full-time employment in the orchestral field. If we, as a field, start using such people as alternatives to filling vacancies, at some point they will figure out that training to become an orchestra musician is a mug’s game and go find something better to do with their parents’ money.

The orchestral world is an ecosystem, and, like all ecosystems, will only tolerate a limited amount of unraveling before it falls apart completely.

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