An Orchestra Veteran on Music’s Post-Pandemic Future

Mark Volpe grew up steeped in classical music, the son of a trumpet player in the Minnesota Orchestra. An aspiring clarinetist, he stumb...


Mark Volpe grew up steeped in classical music, the son of a trumpet player in the Minnesota Orchestra. An aspiring clarinetist, he stumbled into a career managing orchestras after failing to win auditions for professional ensembles and enrolling in law school.

Volpe, 63, went on to become one of music’s most powerful figures, eventually leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra as president and chief executive — a post he leaves this month after 23 years. On his watch, the orchestra has won accolades for its artistry, including under its current music director, Andris Nelsons, recruited by Volpe in 2013. The orchestra’s endowment has more than tripled, to $540 million, making it one of the wealthiest classical ensembles in the nation.

When, in January 2020, he announced his plans to retire, Volpe expected a relatively quiet end to his career, which also included stints in Detroit, Baltimore and Minneapolis. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, posing one of the gravest threats to the Boston Symphony in its 140-year history. After canceling more than 300 concerts or events, including its venerable and lucrative summer season at Tanglewood, the orchestra laid off 50 of its 180 employees; its musicians agreed to pay cuts of 37 percent.

In an interview, Volpe reflected on the post-pandemic challenges for American ensembles; efforts to bring more racial and ethnic diversity to orchestras; and his memories of the conductor James Levine, Boston’s music director from 2004 to 2011, who died in March after his career ended in a scandal over allegations of sexual improprieties. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The pandemic has devastated American orchestras, and many are resorting to budget cuts and layoffs after more than a year without live concerts. How will they recover?

The ramifications of the pandemic are here for the foreseeable future — for years, if not decades. The psychological implications going forward, we don’t know.

We put together a budget, with three different models. Eventually you need a budget. But there are too many unanswered questions, and that goes for next year and the year after that. And I don’t think it’s going to get any easier.

How is the Boston Symphony grappling with the upheaval?

This was the ultimate puzzle of what to do: how to stay connected to audiences, how to stay connected to donors. We’ve used this opportunity to morph into a media company and make the case that what we do is indispensable to Boston.

Are orchestras well positioned to innovate? Many have adhered to a traditional model for decades.

The hybrid model of having in-person audiences, as well as disseminating our content digitally on our platforms, is going to be critical to economic viability. The sports teams did it. After the advent of television, everyone thought, “Oh my God, no one’s going to come to baseball games.” And there has been nothing better for sports than television. Screens are pervasive. Screens are obviously an integral part of our lives.

The killing of George Floyd prompted widespread calls for racial justice, including in classical music, which has long been dominated by white performers and administrators. What needs to change?

The reality is this is no longer a Eurocentric country. Demographics are fundamentally changing. We have to be responsive to that.

Programmatically, we’ve been institutionally remiss. I think the industry’s been remiss. We are farther along in terms of gender — since I’ve been here, we’ve commissioned 33 women composers. But I think in terms of people of color, we need to do more.

What do orchestras need to do to stay relevant in the 21st century?

I would answer first, glibly, by saying that predictions of the demise of classical music started in the late 1940s. Equity, diversity and inclusion is a part of this, but we have to do a much better job of engaging more people.

We really were remiss when public schools — in urban districts initially and now into suburban districts — started gutting bands and orchestras. If you look, 50 percent of our audience has some musical experience in junior high or high school, whether it’s chorus or band or orchestra. And so I’m a deep believer that this should be part of everybody’s education. That’s where we have to invest.

You worked closely with James Levine, who resigned as music director in Boston in 2011 because of persistent health problems. How did you decide to part ways?

I sat with him and explained we couldn’t go forward. And I said, “You know, you’re a phenomenal teacher.” And he looks at me. He says, “I only live to conduct.” And then he says, “You’re telling me something?” I said, “Yeah, I’m telling you, Jimmy, it’s done. We’re over.” And he looked at me and said, “No one’s ever told me I can’t do something.” Jimmy and I never said another word to each other.

His career ended years later in disgrace, amid allegations of sexual abuse and harassment stretching back decades, before his time in Boston. Is there anything you would have done differently?

We had heard rumors and stuff, and we did our due diligence like everybody else.

Should we have been more proactive? You do your soul-searching. Yeah, maybe. You don’t get do-overs in life. Now we’re absolutely diligent and [awareness about sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior] is part of the DNA of the place.

You grew up in Minneapolis with a father who played second trumpet in the Minnesota Orchestra. What did you learn from having a musician as a parent?

I learned what it takes to be onstage. I have such appreciation and admiration — especially after losing 10 or 11 auditions myself — for what it takes to be onstage and play in an orchestra.

Orchestras — and it’s a bit of an overused metaphor — are big extended families, with all the other attributes of families. With pockets of dysfunction, and with sometimes really tense moments.

In your retirement you plan to take on projects in Europe and Asia, including advising music competitions, as well as returning to teaching at universities, where you’ve led seminars on negotiation strategies. What else are you looking forward to?

I also want to take time off and travel — and travel where I’m not responsible for 150 people, where the phone doesn’t ring at two in the morning, at three in the morning, at four in the morning: “I lost my passport. The bus is leaving at 7:30. I have no passport.”

Thank God I had a fantastic team.

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Newsrust - US Top News: An Orchestra Veteran on Music’s Post-Pandemic Future
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