Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s longtime president and CEO, is set to retire Sunday, ending a successful 23-year Boston career where he more than tripled the orchestra’s endowment, vastly expanded its operating budget, and dramatically enhanced its summer home in Tanglewood. Along the way, there’ve been numerous international tours, dozens of recordings, and a fistful of Grammys. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. The #MeToo movement brought painful revelations about former BSO music director James Levine. The orchestra is under pressure to become more diverse, and the pandemic forced deep staff reductions. We caught up with Volpe recently for a look back.
Q. How would you say the orchestra and its role in the community have changed over the past quarter century?
A. In terms of artistic aspiration, that hasn’t changed. It’s part of the DNA. But we’re not immune from the external environment, and as demographics have shifted, there’s been a need to evolve.
Q. What has that meant for the orchestra in real terms?
A. Frankly, programming that reflects composers of color and gender. We were out front a little bit on gender. If you look at the Tanglewood Music Center — it’s well over 30 commissions by women composers. I’m not by any means suggesting we’ve done enough. It would be premature to suggest otherwise. I think an area where we were candidly remiss is composers of color.
Q. You’ve overseen a period of tremendous growth at the symphony. What are you proudest of?
A. We have an incredible culture. I’ve done [many] collective bargaining agreements with no strikes, no lockouts, no extensions. We have our little issues here and there internally, but it was amicable. You guys never had anything to write about.
Q. Fair enough, but that culture is possible, at least in part, because of the symphony’s financial success — a world-class Symphony Hall, a thriving Tanglewood — these are structural pieces that allow that culture to flourish.
A. Gosh. The multi-brand strategy [of the BSO, the Boston Pops, and Tanglewood] obviously proceeds me, but we were able to take that multi-brand strategy and amplify it.
What makes us absolutely unique, though, is Tanglewood, so I think realizing its potential [was important]. When I arrived, the Tanglewood Music Center was in total disarray, and now it’s by all accounts the leading training academy [in classical music].
The festival is prominent. The Berkshires have had to redefine themselves as a cultural resort. We’re the driving engine of that.
Q. What’s been the most difficult moment for you as president?
A. I have to say, the hardest period was when we had to eliminate positions [during the pandemic] — 50 layoffs, and talking to all of them. I didn’t sleep the day before. I didn’t sleep the day of, and I didn’t sleep the day after.
Q. Your tenure hasn’t been without its controversies — I’m thinking mainly of the allegations of sexual misconduct against conductors James Levine and Charles Dutoit. Looking back on it now, is there more the orchestra could have done?
A. When you say orchestra, I would say society. Like much of the entertainment business (and I think what we do transcends entertainment, but that’s a bias), we are mythmakers. There’s an uncomfortable dimension to that.
When I first came here, the conductors were the whole brochure. I did pull back on it. Maybe we should have been more rigorous, but that’s easy to say. That’s hindsight.
Q. Did the revelations cause you to reconsider how you present stars? That perhaps the cult of the maestro in some way contributed to their ability to misbehave?
A. The cult of personality is pervasive in American society. You’re isolating the BSO. It goes way beyond the BSO — everywhere where you have an imbalance of power.
It’s much easier to promote an individual. I’m frankly contrarian, and, more and more, I’m advising other orchestras to promote the institution. So I think the myth making, I don’t want to suggest it’s no longer relevant, but I think it has to be de-emphasized.
Q. Principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe sued the company in 2018 for equal pay. The suit was ultimately settled, but did the BSO respond to that claim too slowly? And how did the litigation change the orchestra?
A. That’s one I can’t talk about. Part of the settlement was we can’t talk about it.
Q. You mentioned earlier the BSO has been “remiss” when it comes to composers of color. Nevertheless, the upcoming Tanglewood season isn’t particularly diverse. What needs to be done to become more inclusive?
A. It’s a fair observation, but I would say look at what we’re doing in the season here in Boston. Not to be defensive about it, but when you’re coming out of a pandemic, what sells? Beethoven sells. Tchaikovsky sells. The season is obviously more encyclopedic. I think it’s close to a third of the pieces are either by women composers or composers of color, so I don’t think Tanglewood is necessarily a reflection.
Q. What do you see is the biggest challenge facing incoming president and CEO Gail Samuel?
A. Coming out of the pandemic, it’s not clear what the behavioral patterns will be for the broader public. Going forward with the equity, diversity, and inclusion theme, and how that gets incorporated into the DNA at every level, will also certainly be something to address.
Q. What’s the biggest opportunity?
A. I think the biggest opportunity goes back to equity, diversity, and inclusion. There’s considerably more work to be done there, and how you work that through at every level of the orchestra.
You know, by the time you get to the Boston Symphony, you’re talking about the best musicians in the world. I think one area we’ve been remiss is, when the public schools started eliminating active music making we didn’t push back enough. There’s an opportunity there, because, ultimately, if you’re going to fundamentally address these inequalities and injustices you’ve got to invest in the public schools and various programs.
Q. What are you going to miss most?
A. The music, the players, the staff, various relationships. I always worry about the collective, and the collective of this orchestra is incredible.
Interview was edited and condensed.