This September, Mark Volpe starts his 15th year as managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has overseen the farewell of music director Seiji Ozawa and the complicated tenure of Ozawa’s successor, James Levine, and now he is searching for the BSO’s next musical leader. Volpe spoke recently about Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary, the music director search, and the challenge of filling seats.
Q. Have you been impressed or excited about anything related to this Tanglewood celebration?
A. I wasn’t quite sure how this was going to play, but everyone has given the rights [to release downloads of past Tanglewood performances]. We’re talking the [Erich] Leinsdorf estate. [Leonard] Bernstein estate. Michael Tilson Thomas. Seiji Ozawa. I hadn’t fully understood the good will that Tanglewood has created.
We have all these great moments at Tanglewood that we certainly want to highlight. John Williams has said Tanglewood’s sort of the spiritual home of music in America. So we have that.
Q. How do you keep people excited and focused when there’s no clear sense when the BSO will name a new music director?
A. Communication is critical. I just sent a letter to all the subscribers giving them an update on the search. Mostly process. We’re not vetting candidates. It’s not a popularity contest. And frankly, the season in front of us is the first [in years] that hasn’t been ruled somewhat by the health of James Levine.
We’ve basically taken half the year and given them the kind of repertoire that’s dead center. It’s basically saying to [conductor] Charles Dutoit, you’re a big champion of early 20th century. What do you want to do? [Conductor Bernard] Haitink does the canon. This year he did Beethoven symphonies. Next year, it’s a Mahler symphony.
Q. And the other half?
A. That’s for conductors we may or may not over time develop a relationship with. A few conductors are brand new to us. Andris Nelsons will do his first subscription series. Vladimir Jurowski, we’ve never had here. Daniele Gatti, we haven’t had on a regular basis.
Q. We obviously look at that half — the non-Haitink crowd — as candidates. Is that fair?
A. Not entirely. I wouldn’t suggest all of them are candidates. And I don’t use the word candidate. Some of the candidates, if some of them see themselves described as a candidate and they have preexisting obligations, they’re not going to be particularly happy, and consequently . . . I use the word conductor.
Q. So there are no wild cards.
A. It’s a safe assumption that the Boston Symphony is not going to hire a music director that the orchestra hasn’t worked with.
Q. And what about somebody like Riccardo Chailly, who was rumored to be a candidate but had to pull out earlier this year because of a heart condition? I see he’s not on the schedule.
A. I’m not going to comment on a specific conductor. That being said, given how disconcerting the human element was of watching someone suffer like Jimmy, that was not a good experience for the audience and the orchestra. Health is always going to be a consideration, but given what we’ve just been through, it’s probably a little more prominent in our deliberations than it might have been 10 or 12 years ago.
Q. Without a music director, who chooses the repertoire?
A. Basically conductors. If a conductor doesn’t want to do a piece, we don’t ever insist. But the primary relationship is the conductor with [artistic administrator] Tony Fogg. And we meet with the players of the artistic advisory committee, who have played a much more vital role without a music director.
Q. What role does the board of trustees play?
A. We’ve had over decades kind of a church-state separation. Certainly, we present the season in advance to the season being published. The board members who sit on the search committee have some involvement [in which conductors come in as part of the search]. There are certain conductors that we would want to see last year, this year, next year.
Q. Your board chair, Ted Kelly, has been at the center of a controversy over his compensation as head of Liberty Mutual. Does that create concerns at the BSO?
A. Ted was selected and elected by the board to serve as chair. He’s been a terrific chair and a very generous chair. What goes on at Liberty Mutual is not my business. My relationship with Ted is fully focused on the Boston Symphony.
The board doesn’t decide what music is played. They are responsible for the finances of the organization. That board is responsible for raising money. We generate about half of our money — we’re an $82-$83 million operation — we earn about half of that in ticket sales. The remaining comes from annual giving as well as the draw from our endowment. Board members are recruited for their wisdom, their expertise in business, but also for their ability to give.
Q. Are financial pressures behind the decision to cut back on open rehearsals next year? We’ve heard from a number of people who are upset about that.
A. We have inventory available on concerts we didn’t have 10 years ago. Part of what we’re trying to do is encourage people to come to concerts. We’ve tried to create a significantly discounted ticket.
Q. But some of these folks — particularly older people — say it’s hard to come to the concerts.
A. My response is, Friday afternoon [concerts are] still during the day. And we still offer four [open rehearsals] on Thursdays. . . . And a discounted price to come Friday afternoon.
The objective is to fill out the remaining seats available. That being said, if we see the economy gets better and we start selling every ticket again, or we see a return to 94 or 95 percent [full] houses, we’ll certainly reconsider the decision.
Q. What percentage are you at now?
A. I think we’re low 80s. We’ve lost position. Not so much on Saturday but on the Tuesday and Thursdays.
A. This is not the best economy. Certainly not the economy when I came here in the late ’90s. In the spirit of candor, the uncertainty of Levine’s health and the amount of weeks affected by the cancellations had an adverse impact, especially in the last two years.
Q. You started here back in 1997. Is this your dream job, or do you think of just trying to get through this music director search and looking for another gig?
A. In the orchestra field, there’s no other place to go. This is the destination. It is the biggest symphonic operation in terms of activities in the world. There are a few jobs that pay better, but we’re all paid well enough.
I mean, I’ll say, forgive the immodesty of this, I do have the longest tenure of anyone running the top 20 orchestras, budget-wise. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I’m still kind of looking forward to a boring day. Because I haven’t had one yet.