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May 6, 2011

Baltimore Symphony disputes info in much-linked Web story about struggling orchestras

A story making its way through cyberspace this week (it started at and was quickly picked up by other sitesd) offers a snapshot of the "most cash-strapped classical music organizations."

But the writer, Jonathan Berr, used outdated and misleading information, at least when it came to including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on that list.  

In case you've come across that article (I rather hate to fuel the buzz, but I guess I should provide a link to it), there are a few details you may want to consider.

The BSO is shown with a deficit of $5.3 million. But, as BSO president/CEO Paul Meecham points out, "that's two-year-old information. We balanced the budget for 2009-2010 and we are on track to balance the budget for '10-'11. We have no accumulated debt. It's unfortunate that the article was written by a journalist who did not make an effort to check the information. A quick call from the writer would have clarified things, but he didn't do that. It's very frustrating."

(Berr could also have checked out my January blog post on the BSO's financial status -- doesn't everybody hang on my every word?)

The story claimed the the BSO "is faced with ...

the unenviable problem of competing for corporate patrons and ticket sales with National Symphony Orchestra in neighboring Washington, D.C." I don't think that holds up to scrutiny. The two cities are hardly neighboring, a la Minneapolis and St. Paul. They have always had very distinct markets, donors, etc.

Even the BSO's move into Strathmore (located in Bethesda, which really is "neighboring" to DC) did not make it a major competitor to the NSO. I'm told that the NSO has seen no discernible drop in ticket sales or donations since the BSO began playing at Strathmore. And the BSO has been developing a substantive support base there.  

The story goes on to say that the BSO "has a negative net asset value of $3.3 million." Meecham says that this is "purely a balance sheet item related to the musician's pension. We have to list all liabilities, and that figure is for the musicians' defined benefit plan. We have to fund that plan, but not in any one year. It does not have an impact on the operating budget."

Like most nonprofits these days, the BSO is hardly coasting on tidal waves of cash. But tough cost-cutting measures taken during the 2008-2009 season paid off. That year's deficit was eliminated using. Things have been in the black since. No wonder the unexpected flurry of bad cyber-press did not sit well.

"We've had strong ticket sales for the second half of the season," Meecham said. "Donations have never been higher. It's particularly galling to read stuff like this."


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


Proper Discord broke down some of the numbers used in that article, focused on the classical recording section--his own area of expertise--and, in short, things didn't add up correctly there either...

Why am I not surprised? Thanks for sharing. TIM

also the Detroit Symohony did NOT cancel the rest of their season-- isn't that a weird thing to write?

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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