A Year to Forget – Progress to Remember

Brian Prechtl, Percussionist, Chair of the PlayersCommittee and ICSOM Delegate

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 multi-year 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 in the last year propelled us forward in the face of a scary and uncertain future. BSO leadership and musicians agreed that we should continue to stay the course that we collectively laid out for the institution, which included achieving a long-term agreement. We met continuously beginning on March 20th  all the way through the summer until finally reaching a tentative settlement on August 27th. 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%-35% for most of the musicians; however, this historic five-year agreement makes great progress on rebuilding the complement of the orchestra, which has been depleted over the last ten years. The stability of a long-term agreement will not only drive donor confidence, but it will allow many of our newer musicians to lay 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 14th. Each week, a new episode features the orchestra performing on stage at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. These performances are accompanied by 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 just $10 each, or viewers can purchase a monthly, all-access plan for just $20 a month. In addition to BSO Sessions, the new and improved BSOOffStage platform offers additional free content, including a new virtual lineup 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: “Its such a pleasure to be back on stage with all of my colleagues. Its wonderful to see peoples faces and hear the warm sonorities in the Meyerhoff after so many months away. Im looking forward to performing with the entire ensemble together at some point in the future and getting back to playing music for our amazing audiences.”

While many of our colleagues returned to the stage to participate in BSO Sessions, those that fall 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 pallet 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 in which 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.