Boston Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Mark Volpe plans to retire next year, the orchestra said Wednesday, wrapping up a more than two-decade run in which he worked with three music directors, significantly expanded the organization’s endowment, and opened a new four-building facility at Tanglewood.
Volpe, 62, said he had long expected to stay in his post for about 20 years. Since his arrival in 1997, the BSO has raised $766 million, allowing it to triple its endowment, now valued at $456 million. It has also roughly doubled its operating budget from $49 million in his first year to $107 million in 2018.
“I’ve lasted for four Harvard presidents and three MIT presidents,” Volpe said in an interview on Tuesday. “The balance sheet is still healthy. We got the Tanglewood project done and launched and learned a lot. It’s time.”
Volpe added that his departure, set for February 2021, was also timed to coincide with a transition on the BSO’s board of trustees, which was also announced Wednesday. In March 2021, Barbara W. Hostetter will succeed Susan W. Paine as chair. Hostetter, who is cofounder of the Barr Foundation and chair of its board, will also oversee the BSO’s search for Volpe’s successor. (The Barr Foundation provides a grant to The Boston Globe to help support public education coverage.)
“All of us at the BSO are grateful for Mark’s leadership over the past two decades and all that he’s accomplished during his tenure," Paine told the Globe. "He’s been the driving force for excellence on and off stage, he’s kept the orchestra relevant in a time of change, and he’s overseen a period of great artistic, programmatic, and financial growth.”
When Volpe started his job, the BSO was 24 years into Seiji Ozawa’s extended tenure, a period during which critics detected slipping standards in the playing of the storied ensemble. Volpe oversaw Ozawa’s final five years in his position as well as the seven years of James Levine’s appointment, a period marked by artistic reinvigoration but also marred by the conductor’s recurring health issues. (Levine resigned in 2011, seven years before allegations of sexual misconduct ended his career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.) Finally, in 2013, Volpe oversaw the appointment of the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, the orchestra’s current music director, who took up his post the following year.
“I owe Mark so much as a musician, as a friend, as a colleague,” Nelsons said earlier this week in Symphony Hall. “There’s always been a very unusual and very healthy feeling between all the different teams at the BSO, which unfortunately is not so common. He’s spent so many years here, so many nights, and he’s done so brilliantly.”
With the exception of an equal-pay suit raised by principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe that made national headlines before eventually settling out of court, Volpe also presided over a period relatively free of the types of labor disputes that roiled ensembles in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Minnesota. Reached on the day of Volpe’s announcement, BSO bass trombonist James Markey suggested this may not have been a coincidence.
“He understands first and foremost the mission of the organization, but he also understands what it is to be a musician and has a tremendous amount of respect for the jobs we have," said Markey, chair of the BSO’s players committee. "We feel that respect, and we feel how much he sees it as his responsibility to keep live classical music happening, for the community and for the world.”
Volpe grew up in a musical family in Minneapolis, where his father played second trumpet in the Minnesota Orchestra. Volpe himself played clarinet, earning a performance degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and taking several professional auditions before deciding he was perhaps better suited for law school, after which he began his career in orchestral management at the Baltimore Symphony.
“When I think about Mark, the first thing that comes to mind is that he has a musician’s heart and head,” said Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic. “That stands out and sets him in a very special place. In our line of work, it was a remarkable run. His accomplishments matched his longevity, and that’s a very rare and beautiful thing.”
Earlier this week, sitting in his Symphony Hall office, its walls lined by decades of bound program books, Volpe reflected back on his 22 years. “My favorite part of the job has been just hearing great works of music. And the whole Tanglewood ethos. You just walk around and you kind of just feel [the history], whether it’s Copland or Bernstein. That I’m going to miss.”
Volpe also looked ahead to some of the challenges that his successor will inherit, including those facing all big orchestras nationwide: how to continue finding new audiences without losing existing ones, how to compete with the ever-growing range of entertainment options, including the smartphone in your pocket.
“Is it enough to focus on Western art music? Probably not," he said. "We’re going to have to reimagine, if you will.”
And while he has overseen the completion of the Tanglewood Learning Institute, a major building project on the BSO’s Berkshires campus, Volpe may have also paved the way for another initiative closer to the orchestra’s Boston home.
“In my time we acquired quite a bit of real estate around Symphony Hall,” he said, adding that the orchestra now owns the entire block of Huntington Avenue from Massachusetts Avenue to Gainsborough Street. The BSO may consider building “spaces where you can do different types of programming, and rethink our relationship with the surrounding area."
That project, if it moves forward, will await the orchestra’s next president. Volpe has not disclosed his own future plans but says they may include spending time in Italy, where he has extended family, and “working with other cultural institutions, working on projects that go beyond the United States.”
In his 13 months remaining at his BSO post, he plans to focus on the same long-range goals that have animated his work since his arrival.
“Every day I get up and think about culture, about cutting through the noise in an ever more cluttered marketplace, and I think about an ever more challenging environment for cultural institutions. Ultimately, I’ve seen it as my core fiduciary responsibility to build a balance sheet — not just a financial one but an institutional, cultural, and artistic balance sheet — that will ensure the orchestra will be here for generations to come.”