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Baltimore Symphony Has Uncertain Future

June 8, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) _ For the accomplished musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, smooth transitions are crucial. The orchestra’s leadership team, however, has endured some bumpy entrances and exits lately.

Since Marin Alsop’s appointment as music director last year, making her the first woman to lead a major American symphony, the orchestra’s president, general manager and board chairman _ the trio responsible for bringing her in _ have either left or are preparing to depart.

Alsop’s appointment sparked a rare public response by some of the musicians, who expressed unhappiness with not being consulted during the search. Alsop, who officially takes her position with the start of the 2006-2007 season, has shaken off the controversy.

But the orchestra has been further roiled by ongoing budget deficits and sparse attendance at many concerts _ the sort of problems that have led similar orchestras to fold in recent years.

Now, though, with a former corporate executive shepherding the orchestra and a beefed-up role for musicians in major decisions, the BSO believes it’s in the midst of a crescendo.

``I think the present situation is bringing the organization together in a way that normally doesn’t happen _ because we have to. Somebody’s got to get the work done, so staff and musicians are working together and talking together,″ said English horn player Jane Marvine, the head of the BSO’s players’ committee.

Interim president W. Gar Richlin ``is encouraging communication and accountability on a level that I think hasn’t existed here in the past,″ Marvine said in an interview alongside Richlin at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Despite their optimism, Richlin and Marvine concede that the orchestra will have to make tough choices in the coming months, particularly as musicians negotiate a new contract.

In March, the orchestra’s board of directors approved a plan to use $27 million of the BSO’s $90 million endowment to pay off more than $16 million in accumulated deficits and solidify its finances.

The orchestra must increase revenues and decrease expenses in order to prevent such deficits from piling up in the future, said Richlin, who would not specify what budget cuts he had in mind. Neither Richlin nor Marvine would rule out a reduction in the orchestra’s size or its year-round playing schedule.

``We have for the past few years been operating both on the orchestra side and the staff side with less than a full complement,″ Marvine said. ``One of the challenges is to be able to make sure that in a situation like that, that there is no sacrifice of quality, and I think we’ve been able to do that pretty effectively.″

Said Richlin: ``We’re committed to having a world-class orchestra.″

Downsizing has been common among orchestras that have confronted intractable budget shortfalls, said Julia Kirchhausen, a spokeswoman for the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Of about 350 professional American orchestras, nine have folded since 1996. Three of those were in markets that had other orchestras; three others have been reorganized to some degree. Three that have yet to be reborn are the Tulsa (Okla.) Philharmonic, the Savannah (Ga.) Symphony and the Florida Philharmonic, which was based in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton.

``When something like this happens, you start a new ensemble, and you start small and grow it again. They might not be at their original capacity,″ Kirchhausen said. ``It’s all about finding the appropriate level and balance of music to support.″

Ramon Ricker, associate dean at the Eastman School of Music and editor of Polyphonic.org, an online forum for orchestral musicians, said there’s no easy solution for orchestras that need to increase revenue.

``If this was a for-profit thing, if we were Kodak or General Motors, if we’re not meeting our numbers, you lay off people,″ Ricker said. ``You can’t do that in an orchestra, because you need a certain number of people just to make the sound.″

When Alsop was named the BSO’s music director in 2005, a large group of musicians asked management to continue their search, saying they had not had enough input in what they characterized as a secretive selection process.

Such breakdowns in communication are much rarer under Richlin’s leadership, Marvine said. Musicians have been integral in crafting a set of credentials the BSO is looking for in candidates for its open leadership positions.

Richlin, a corporate consultant and the former chief operating officer of SITEL Corp. and Advertising.com, said he is not a candidate for the permanent president’s job. In the meantime, he has plenty on his plate _ and little is more pressing than improving attendance.

Richlin said turnout is on the rise, but there are still nights when musicians look out on more than 1,000 empty seats at the Meyerhoff, which seats 2,443. The BSO also performs year-round at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and that facility has been a better draw.

``I want to run this more like a business and think about our patrons from the minute they get into the hall,″ Richlin said. ``We need to make it a better experience all around. It’s a competitive marketplace for people’s leisure time, their leisure dollar.″

He’s counting on the charisma and star power of Alsop, who’s known for leading impromptu discussions with audiences after performances. The BSO expects to do more touring and recording under Alsop, who has bonded with the musicians since her contentious appointment, Marvine said. (Alsop was touring in Europe and unavailable for comment.)

``The time that we had with her was very special,″ Marvine said. ``I think of all conductors at this time, she probably has the highest profile and degree of artistic vision and understanding of classical music, contemporary music, how all symphonic music can fit into the context of our changing society.″

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