“It Takes a Village,” by Mike Giuliano in SymphonyOnline
This is one of the most inspiring U.S. orchestra turnaround stories I have ever read. It shares the real-life struggles, passionate teamwork, brilliant leadership, and reinvigorated direction and growth of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “It Takes a Village” is a relevant and insightful article. It highlights some of the changes and programs that have occurred since the appointment of the new President and CEO, Paul Meecham, and BSO’s music director and esteemed Maestra, Marin Alsop, in 2007. The article has informed me of financial difficulties the BSO has faced with the national recession, decisions that were made in response, including the key players in those decisions, and confirmed my understanding of effective audience engagement in the 21st century. With the extraordinary leadership of the new CEO, the tremendous talent, skill, and personality of the new music director, and an enthusiastic and supportive Board Chairman, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra set out on a re-energized and corrective path.
The article shows how a variety of factors have contributed to the success of the BSO’s revitalization. The first step was bold, yet simple. The Orchestra decided to offer a subscription plan for $25 per seat (36), compared to the typical $60+ subscription cost – a reduction of 40% from the average subscription price! Paul Meecham recognized the BSO’s empty hall as an audience development challenge and answered the community’s need for greater affordability with the new subscription plan. This was achieved with the help of a large corporate gift ($1 million) from PNC, shortly after its acquisition of a longstanding Baltimore bank, attempting to build awareness among the community. In the following season (2008-2009), the BSO was able to continue the plan only slightly modified due to a $250,000 matching grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The $25 subscription plan remained in place for three seasons, extending from 2007 through 2010. The BSO experienced dramatic increases in subscription sales, attendance, giving, and public interest.
The first decade of the new Millennium was marked with challenge and change. Faced by the emotional and financial strain created by the events of 9/11, the establishment of the Music Center at Strathmore as a second home in 2005, and the initial controversy among the musicians over the selection of the new music director, the BSO was challenged to prove its strength. “In a remarkable collective effort, the entire Baltimore team – administration, music director, musicians, board, and members of the extended ‘family’ – worked together to turn the orchestra’s situation around (38).” As the title of the article suggests, “it takes a village,” a team, a family, to work together and turn an organization around.
Paul Meecham realized the symphony needed to be focused, disciplined, and live within its means, in addition to placing greater emphasis on communication, transparency, and connecting with new audiences. The board played a big role in the BSO’s success as well. The BSO had previously accumulated a five-year deficit of $17 million, but the board decided to use some of the endowment funds to balance the debt and establish a healthy operating cushion. The endowment was split into two separate funds – $27 million unrestricted and $62 million restricted – and the $17 million was paid off all at once. This left $10 million in unrestricted funds for the orchestra for future support. The Board Chairman at the time, G. Bronfein, had described his “relationship with Meecham and Alsop as a ‘three legged stool’ (39),” further emphasizing the collaborative and supportive spirit of BSO’s leadership. Even the musicians opted to donate a portion of their salary and benefits, as well as participate in fund-raising efforts for the sake of the organization.
The organization has been rejuvenated with a fresh vision and energy in the appointment of Marin Alsop. She has helped to infuse excitement, confidence, and innovative spirit into the Baltimore Symphony, elevating the artistry, repertoire, and public appeal to a new level. Despite her impressive resume, she is known for being a team player, down-to-earth, open with musicians and the community, and a great musical leader. Her “expansive” style of communication resonates with 21st century audiences, especially to young people. Maestra Alsop’s preference for all kinds of music, ranging from masterworks and contemporary composers to global music, incorporation of technology, and attention to diversity and education have contributed to the BSO’s developing reputation as an exciting, cutting edge symphony orchestra.
Having a basic understanding of younger, 21st century orchestra audiences, it is clear to me that the Baltimore Symphony is truly working hard to keep the orchestra and the symphony experience not only alive and well, but also approachable and fun for all ages. Marin Alsop has been quoted saying, “I’d like my legacy to be inclusion, access, and possibility. I strive for versatility and a real spectrum of sound.” Giuliano’s article shows that it takes a village of strong, passionate, knowledgeable leaders, artists, supporters, and audience members to make such dreams come true.