The Man Behind the Boston Symphony’s Quiet Success Will Retire

The Man Behind the Boston Symphony’s Quiet Success Will Retire


Mark Volpe, the chief executive who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra into the 21st century, strengthening both its robust finances and its artistic reputation, announced on Wednesday that he planned to step down in early 2021, after 23 years in the position.

In an era when many of his peers have been buffeted by economic challenges, Mr. Volpe, 62, has kept the orchestra on firm footing by capitalizing on what he has referred to as its “multiple brand strategy”: In addition to being one of the finest symphonic ensembles in the world, it also has a lighter alter ego, the Boston Pops, and runs the successful Tanglewood music festival each summer in the Berkshires. During his tenure Boston’s endowment, the largest in the classical field, has more than tripled, to $456 million.

Mr. Volpe also served at a moment of artistic evolution — including through challenging times.

When he began at the orchestra, in 1997, Seiji Ozawa was nearing the end of a 29-year reign as music director, and some critics were calling for change. Mr. Volpe oversaw the appointment of his successor, James Levine, whose tenure began promisingly, in 2004, but ended early after his health problems led to frequent cancellations.

In 2013, the orchestra announced that the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, then just 34, would be its next music director — a gamble that has paid off as Mr. Nelsons has won critical praise in Boston and seen his international stature quickly rise.

Mr. Volpe said in an interview that he had never expected to stay in the position for more than 20 years — he noted that there had been four presidents of Harvard University and three at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since he started — and that he hoped to try new things.

“Candidly, and not to be insensitive, I just don’t want to work 80 hours a week, 50 weeks a year,” he said.

Mr. Volpe grew up in Minneapolis, where his father played second trumpet in the Minnesota Orchestra. (He said that he attended his first labor negotiation when he was around six, and spent most of it under the table.) He played the clarinet, and graduated from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in 1979. But after failing to win an audition for an orchestra, he decided to go to law school. He then moved into orchestra administration, with stints in Baltimore, Minnesota and Detroit before Boston.

During his tenure, the Boston Symphony may not have been as flashy as, say, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has changed how orchestras think about programming and community engagement. But Boston has steadily expanded in ambition and reputation, and avoided the labor unrest that has hit some of its peers.

The orchestra has raised $766 million during Mr. Volpe’s tenure, with a series of major campaigns and corporate sponsorships. Tanglewood expanded, adding new buildings, and the orchestra’s operating budget has grown to $107 million from $49 million. It has attracted more young concertgoers by working with colleges and subsidizing tickets. And it has commissioned 94 new works, with the composer and conductor Thomas Adès’s position as artistic partner extending through next season.

Mr. Volpe has faced controversies, too. The orchestra’s principal flute player, Elizabeth Rowe, filed a pay discrimination lawsuit in 2018, noting that her compensation was only about 75 percent that of her closest comparable colleague, the principal oboist, who is a man. The suit was quietly settled.

When allegations of sexual misconduct were made against Mr. Levine — which he denied, but which ultimately cost him his job at the Metropolitan Opera — the Boston Symphony said that it had never been “approached by anyone in connection with inappropriate behavior” by him. And after sexual misconduct allegations were made against Charles Dutoit, a frequent guest conductor in Boston, the orchestra conducted an investigation and said that four women had provided investigators with credible accounts of misconduct by him in the 1980s and ’90s.

Mr. Volpe said that he thought the orchestra’s next task would be to look at its work spaces in Boston, where it plays in Symphony Hall, built in 1900 and one of the finest concert halls in the country.

“As our mission expands to include more education, we just don’t have the facilities to do that type of work,” he said, noting that the orchestra had been purchasing real estate that could be used to expand its educational and outreach efforts.

“It’s clear that to remain germane in our communities,” he added, “we have to be much more proactive, and that certainly is not just marketing but content and governance.”



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