The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cut 10 shows next season has left some of its subscribers worried about the future of the institution, which has been performing classical and contemporary music at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall since 1982.

Subscribers were mostly contacted by phone by symphony staff, but some found out by word of mouth or noticed the change in the schedule.

Some told The Banner they worry what new President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Hanson has planned for the orchestra, and that this change is a sign of more decline to come.

“I’m brokenhearted about this decision,” said Charlie Walker, a longtime symphony subscriber. Walker said he is concerned performances will continue to be cut despite reassurances from the BSO.

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The cancellations bring the number of performances at the Meyerhoff from 91 to 81. The main changes include a shift with the Friday concert series offerings — instead of two series, there will be a single six-concert series.The Saturday “Off The Cuff” performances at the Meyerhoff were also cut, however patrons can still see an “Off The Cuff” show on Friday at Strathmore, the BSO’s venue in Bethesda. Those concerts allow audiences to explore a single piece of music in depth and participate in a Q&A with the conductor after the concert.

One of the main concerns from subscribers is that the cancellations mark a shift toward more programming at Strathmore, and more of a focus on the suburbs rather than the Meyerhoff. Symphony officials contend that the Meyerhoff is still the home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the reduced concert schedule will help outreach throughout the region.

Cyrina Yarbrough, the BSO’s senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer, said the concert reduction resulted from several factors and does not signal less of a commitment to Baltimore. The musicians’ health and wellness was one: “Our current calendar represents a heavy concert load, and these adjustments are an investment in the health and morale of our staff and musicians,” Yarbrough said.

The cuts also come as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has seen a decline in attendance caused by COVID restrictions, a problem many arts and culture institutions are facing. Theaters in the area have been struggling to fill seats and many arts institutions are searching for ways to engage new audiences and present interesting and diverse work. About 60% of the available tickets remained unsold during the regular season, Yarbrough said.

“[Reducing performances] is also about creating opportunities in the schedule, both for the orchestra to perform more concerts outside of our home venue and for the Meyerhoff to welcome a wide variety of new performances which serves to introduce new audiences to our hall,” Yarbrough said.

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Travis Newton — an associate professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and author of a new book, “Orchestra Management Handbook: Building Relationships in Turbulent Times” — said that the BSO is adapting so that they will be around in the future.

“If I were a subscriber, I’d see this as a positive that this symphony can adapt to change,” he said. Newton has found in his research that many orchestras are trying to find more ways to get into the community and remove barriers for patrons to view performances. He notes that many orchestras have a “home” location as well as another location where they perform. The variety in venue allows for different audiences to enjoy the concerts and builds outreach to other areas.

Some of the subscribers said they wished the BSO had done a better job at communicating the changes to subscribers. Donors are beginning to worry there was no consideration about how changes would affect them.

Harold Kanarek of Hunting Ridge said he didn’t hear about the cancellations in the most ideal way: “I got a call from a friend and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have known.” The season changes came as a surprise mostly because there was little transparency, he said. Kanarek has been a member since the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was first built. For the past 40 years, he has sat in the same seats he picked out before the Meyerhoff opened, in the terrace next to his wife and friend.

Long-time subscribers have noticed a decline in audience. Luke Hall said, “When I see open seats, I think of opportunity. How can we get more people engaged in the symphony?” Engagement is at the top of mind for the BSO as well. The BSO plans to have “a three-summer concert tour” that goes to all 23 counties around Maryland as well as Baltimore City. With fewer performances in the Meyerhoff, this will also give the space more opportunities to host different kinds of performances and get more people to see the space.

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And some subscribers say they have noticed positive changes throughout the years. “There have been many pieces from African American composers, or women composers, that the BSO has presented and I find the audiences for those events to be more diverse,” says Hall. Hall has been a member for just two years but a supporter for many years; traveling from Washington, D.C., to see symphony performances.

Walker has also been contributing and subscribing to the BSO since their performances were at The Lyric Performing Arts Center. “I can hear jazz or opera anywhere but I’m a big fan of classical music. That’s what motivates me,” Walker says.

The BSO has been making individual phone calls to reassure subscribers about the schedule and that the Meyerhoff will continue to be the symphony’s home base. In a statement posted on the symphony’s website, Hanson said, “You can also expect us to take even more advantage of the rare and unique fact that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra owns the Meyerhoff. We intend to activate our venue spaces in various ways to be even more accessible to the community.”

Right now, it’s unclear what that might look like. The BSO has mentioned they hope to host “post-concert” events. One thing is clear, Yarbrough said, and that’s the importance of their subscribers. “Due to our loyal supporters, the BSO is culturally and financially stronger than we have been in many years,” she said.

imani.spencer@thebaltimorebanner.com

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Imani is an Arts and Culture writer with a background in libraries. She loves to read, hike and brag about her friends.

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