Gail Samuel, a longtime executive with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, once dubbed “the most important orchestra in America,” was named Thursday as the next president and chief executive officer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The appointment ends a 10-month international search to replace Mark Volpe, who announced early last year that he would retire after leading the BSO for more than two decades. Samuel, 53, will start her new role June 21, becoming the eighth president — and first woman — to lead the BSO in its 140-year history.
Samuel has filled a variety of key posts during her more than quarter-century career with the LA Phil, which boasts the largest operating budget of any orchestra in the country. She currently serves as the orchestra’s chief operating officer and president of the Hollywood Bowl, which has thrived under her leadership as a lucrative cultural magnet, serving as the orchestra’s summer home while also presenting a vibrant mix of other musical offerings.
In Boston, she will oversee the BSO’s sprawling cultural footprint, including the symphony orchestra, the Boston Pops, Tanglewood, and a variety of new initiatives aimed at expanding the organization’s cultural reach.
“This is a stellar, stellar orchestra,” Samuel said by phone. “There’s a lot of opportunity to think about all of those pieces, how they fit together, and how they can fit together to be more and more relevant in the Boston community.”
Barbara W. Hostetter, chair-elect of the board of trustees, said the search committee sought an astute leader with a passion for the art form and business acumen who could help expand the organization and reach new audiences.
“Gail is the rare leader who meets and exceeds all of these requirements,” Hostetter, who chaired the search committee, said in a statement. “Her understanding of classical music, business, and most importantly, the critical intersection of the two, is impressive, and we look forward to her skilled stewardship of the BSO.”
Samuel, the daughter of public school music teachers, worked at Tanglewood early in her career, an experience she credits with helping set her trajectory as an arts administrator.
“It was really through doing that at Tanglewood that I kind of figured out this was the right path for me,” said Samuel, who studied violin. “So to have this opportunity at this point in my career, it feels really kind of surreal, and also really right.”
As president, she will helm one of the country’s most storied symphony orchestras, replete with a $509 million endowment and a pre-pandemic operating budget of just more than $100 million.
She will also take the reins at a particularly fraught passage in the BSO’s history: Nearly a year into the pandemic, the orchestra has lost an estimated $51.5 million in revenue. It had to cancel the 2020 Tanglewood season, scrap scores of concerts, endure a painful round of layoffs, and negotiate a new contract with musicians, substantially reducing their pay.
The orchestra hasn’t given an in-person performance at Symphony Hall since March. It’s not clear when performances will resume, and convincing audiences it’s safe to return while also shoring up the BSO’s finances will be an immediate challenge.
“The good news is that this has been a well-positioned organization before this,” said Samuel, who added she would “follow the science” when it comes to reopening. “There may be some trepidation. At the same time, I think there’s really a pent up need for collective human experiences, and that’s what we do.”
Meanwhile, the country’s broader reckoning with issues of social justice and structural racism has placed new urgency on the orchestra’s efforts to appeal to broader audiences while fashioning itself a less Eurocentric organization.
In that regard, Samuel will undoubtedly draw on lessons from the LA Phil, which has laced itself into communities across Los Angeles with innovative programs such as Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, an initiative that provides free instruments, high-level instruction, and performance opportunities to young people from underserved communities across the city.
The youth orchestra program, spearheaded by the LA Phil and its charismatic music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel, now serves some 1,300 musicians and later this year is scheduled to open a new facility designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Samuel, who said issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion are among her top priorities, declined to outline specific ideas for Boston, saying she still has a lot to learn about the city and the BSO.
Still, YOLA’s impact has profoundly shaped her thinking about the role of community engagement and education programs in the life of a symphony orchestra.
“I’ve seen how an education program that is truly central to an organization — not around the edges, but truly central — can change not only the lives of a bunch of students and their families, but also can change the organization, and how we think about ourselves,” she said. “Whether a program exactly like that is the right thing for this community, I don’t know. But I think figuring out how we make something like that central, is key.”
Samuel began working as orchestra manager at the LA Phil in 1993. She was promoted to general manager in 1997 and has since gone on to hold a variety of key positions, including COO in 2012, and executive director in 2015.
She was considered a strong internal candidate to lead the LA Phil, publicly expressing interest in the role when former chief executive Deborah Borda abruptly decamped for the New York Philharmonic in 2017. But while Samuel has twice led the LA orchestra in an acting capacity, the top job ultimately went to others.
Borda, a groundbreaking arts leader who wooed Dudamel and is credited with guiding much of the LA Phil’s ascendency, said Samuel was a key member of the leadership team who was there “every step of the way.”
“Yes, she is a gifted administrator and leader but, at her core, she remains a musician,” Borda said in a statement. “As she guides the Boston Symphony through the artistic and social challenges that confront American orchestras, she will do so with complete integrity.”
Samuel said one of her main roles here will be to support the orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons, whom she described as “incredibly warm and friendly and thoughtful.”
“I’m really just looking forward to building that new relationship,” she said.
Nelsons said he was excited to welcome Samuel to the BSO, adding her arrival marks a new chapter as the symphony faces “unprecedented times of change, challenge, and opportunity with a renewed spirit of possibility.”
“Gail will continue to build upon the orchestra’s extraordinary accomplishments and create a bright and exciting future that deeply resonates with the orchestra’s communities in Boston, the Berkshires, and throughout the world,” he said.
Samuel, who in recent years helped bring the historic Ford amphitheater under the LA Phil’s umbrella, said her goal with the Hollywood Bowl was always to present programming so varied that “everybody would find something that interested them.”
“This is a different organization, so it’s not about layering that on top,” she said. “But once I really understand the DNA of the Boston Symphony, thinking about how we evolve and what makes sense here . . . there are lots of interesting ways to connect with broader audiences.”