December 19, 2018

"If language were liquid": Thoughts for a Board Chair

A huge blue sign outside of Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall says "There's so much to LOVE at the BSO!"   As a musician, I definitely agree.    While the Houston Symphony Orchestra was a huge part of my musical development during my studies at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra became a part of my life in 1997 while I attended the National Orchestral Institute, a three-week summer intensive held annually at the University of Maryland-College Park. 

In 2005, members of the Baltimore Symphony became a part of my life again as I came to Baltimore and performed with members of the orchestra for concerts given by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society during the two years following Hurricane Katrina.   From that time until now, which has included having audition coachings with members of the orchestra, attending symphonic and chamber orchestra concerts, and befriending members of the orchestra - it can undoubtedly be said that the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are both some of the finest musicians in our nation as well some of the most tremendously open-minded and compassionate humans that I have encountered.

With that, it is deeply disheartening to see that after two years of accepting one-year contracts, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony are now working under a four-month extension of last season's contract (which expires on January 15, 2019) while engaging in negotiations with their management and Board of Directors who have proposed, among other things, reducing the length of the Baltimore Symphony season from 52 weeks to forty.  Such a move would result in base salary cuts of 16.6% (proposed cuts to health care benefits raise that amount to 26.8 percent for a single person) and the elimination of the orchestra's summer season

Readers of the Baltimore Sun have probably kept abreast of the situation via the many letters written both by supporters of the orchestra and members of the orchestra's Board of Directors.   One such letter came from Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Board Chairperson Barbara Bozzuto, and in her letter Ms. Bozzuto states some reasoning for such drastic measures:   "Orchestras of our budget size have been facing financial issues for some time.   Certain challenges pervade our entire industry:   changing demographics, varying media available to listen to music, local economics, time constraints of our audiences, aging subscribers and, in our city's case, a stubborn and persistent crime wave [italics mine]."

"A stubborn and persistent crime wave."   

Having lived in Baltimore full-time (after Katrina there was a lot of "wandering") for eight years now,  I have found myself concerned about issues that could prove Baltimore to be a "city in peril":  nevertheless, this language is deeply disturbing.

We who live in the the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis have seen organizations and citizens finding solutions to problems, including those centered around crime.    One of the most notable is the 2015 truce brokered between the Crips and Bloods in response to the death of Freddie Gray.

Going further:  in 2017, the Baltimore Ceasefire Movement was founded.   The goal has been simple ("Nobody kill anybody"), and the organization's activities have made a difference

Recently, Johns Hopkins president Ron Daniels met with Baltimore City Council to assert the need to establish a Johns Hopkins University police force (both Morgan State University and Coppin State University, also located in Baltimore, have their own police).    Daniels has also been speaking to community leaders about the necessity of a university police force, and those conversations have included the promise of assurance that the "new police force" would treat all people fairly ("this is not going to turn Hopkins or the neighborhoods around it into a militarized police state").    As he has listened to the concerns of community leaders, one must applaud Daniels for working with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD Baltimore)  and actually going into neighborhoods around the Johns Hopkins University Medical Campus in East Baltimore to speak with community residents.

Additionally, a group named the Baltimore City Schools Task Force was created.   This group was created to address assaults by students against teachers in the Baltimore City School District.

Less than fifty miles away from Baltimore, the historic African-American Alfred Street Baptist Church of Alexandira, Virginia received bomb threats.   In response, Alfred Street has instituted their "Easter Sunday" protocol which involves both heightened security and the total emptying of the building between services.  This has also included an increased presence of security officials and members of the Alexandria Police.

Why do I mention these examples?  Baltimore's Mount Vernon/Bolton Hill/Mount Royal region is a lively region, one filled with restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.  The Mount Vernon/Bolton Hill/Mount Royal area is also the home of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, Baltimore Center Stage, the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), the University of Baltimore (which has its own police force), classical and jazz presenter An Die Musik and the small but relevant Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.

Should the "stubborn and persistent crime wave" highlighted by Ms. Bozzuto have resulted in diminished concert attendance, would there have not been a consortium of institutional leaders convening to discuss this issue and work for mutually beneficial solutions that would include increased security at venues to ensure the safety of patrons?   

Organizational cooperation around shared civic concerns is not a trailblazing concept.   During the two years that I worked as Marketing Associate for Da Camera of Houston I became familiar with what many of us jokingly called the "Houston G-7".  This group was comprised of the executive directors of organizations including Da Camera of Houston, Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, the Alley Theatre and the Society for Performing Arts.     During those meetings, leaders met to discuss civic issues (including parking meter rate hikes) that would affect their audiences.

To my knowledge, a community-galvanizing step similar to those highlighted has not been initiated by the management and Board of Directors of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.   Had it been, we would have read about it in the Baltimore Sun just as we have recently read about the renewed efforts by Johns Hopkins University/Hospital to establish its own police force.   Therefore, we have to ask why a "stubborn and persistent crime wave" is used as one of the justifications to cut twelve weeks from an orchestra's season, particularly as Baltimore Symphony CEO and President Peter Kjome asserts that the proposed changes - which include the elimination of the orchestras's summer season - will not affect subscription series at either Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Music Center at Strathmore.

The answer to that question is a complex one; nevertheless, it must be said that the mention of a "stubborn and persistent crime wave" in Baltimore - a city which is 63.7% Black or African-American and in which 23.7% of the population lives below the poverty line according to the 2010 Census - is deeply disturbing and dangerous as it echoes the "Southern Strategy" of the 1950s and 1960s, a narrative used by Republican Party strategists to increase political support by appealing to racism against African-Americans and, in recent years, to criminalize poverty.

This tactic has been studied and is referred to as the use of "coded language", which is defined as "a subtle way members of the public, media, and politicians talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion" in the United States.  As no data has been shared to support the claim that a "crime wave" has had a negative effect on the Baltimore Symphony's bottom line, one has to question the inclusion of coded language in a statement written to support a structural proposal that will wreak havoc both on the institution and the city's musical community.

Stay tuned...

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