With just days left before the Boston Symphony Orchestra launches its upcoming season Thursday, Gail Samuel is getting ready for an opening night like no other: Not only will it be the first time the orchestra has performed for a live Boston audience in roughly 18 months, but it will also mark the first time Samuel, just three months into her tenure as the BSO’s new chief executive, will see the orchestra she runs perform at Symphony Hall.
Hired in the pandemic depths of February, Samuel decamped for Tanglewood just two weeks after she moved to Boston from California to oversee this year’s abbreviated festival. It’s been a whirlwind ever since, as she has sought to familiarize herself with the sprawling orchestra and the inner workings of its three main brands: Tanglewood, the symphony orchestra, and the Boston Pops. Meanwhile, there are seasons to map, budgets to plan, staff to meet, and ties to forge with artists and donors — a particular challenge in the disjointed age of COVID-19.
“Those first couple days were a little surreal,” Samuel said during an interview at her tidy Symphony Hall office, where a lush bouquet of flowers from a trustee was one of the few personal touches. “There were moments after I accepted the job where I thought: ‘Wow, what if I’ve just accepted a job, and we never do live performances again?’”
But any such fears are now a distant memory as Symphony Hall rumbles back to life, with technicians preparing the concert hall and artists winging their way back to Boston in advance of Thursday’s concert, where BSO music director Andris Nelsons and John Williams will conduct a program of works by Beethoven, Williams, and Bartók, featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. (The organization will also host a celebratory free concert at Symphony Hall on Sunday that features the BSO as well as the Pops.)
“The work is all very familiar,” said Samuel, a California native who spent 25 years at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But, “Being someone who’s not from here, and frankly has been in the same place for such a long time, that process of getting to know people and getting to know the community is the part of this that’s new for me.”
Samuel, the first woman to be named president and CEO of the 140-year-old orchestra, also takes the reins at a critical moment in the symphony’s history: Like so many arts organizations, the BSO suffered mightily during the pandemic, scratching scores of programs, calling off the entire 2020 Tanglewood season, undergoing a major round of layoffs, reducing player salaries, and losing more than $50 million in revenue.
The challenges don’t stop there. Today, ticket sales are off roughly 30 percent compared with recent seasons, despite the numerous coronavirus-related precautions the orchestra has instituted in recent months — everything from updated ventilation systems to requiring proof of vaccination or negative test results from audience members. (Samuel, who said sales are similarly down across the sector, noted the BSO also began selling tickets later than usual this year, which may partially explain the dip.)
So how do you convince audiences at the BSO, where a few years back the average ticket buyer was 59 years old, that it’s safe to attend live, indoor performances?
Before the rise of the Delta variant, “What we saw in Tanglewood over that first blissful period was that being comfortable in that setting set in pretty quickly,” said Samuel, who added that BSO audiences are “highly vaccinated.” “While it may not quite feel like our previous lives, I think we are finding a way to gather and to be together.”
The organization’s fundamentals remain sound: The orchestra has a deep pool of artistic talent, a fiercely devoted following, and Samuel’s predecessor, Mark Volpe, grew the BSO’s endowment to roughly $550 million (the largest of any American orchestra) while overseeing a pre-pandemic operating budget of more than $100 million.
But perhaps the greater challenge facing the orchestra is a demographic one: the question of how the BSO will attract a younger, more diverse audience without alienating its traditional base of supporters — whether through repertoire, community programs, staffing, or the talent that appears on stage.
“We remain on solid financial footing,” said William Curry, an orchestra trustee who was on the search committee. “One of the reasons we were so happy [Samuel] agreed to be the president is she conveyed and demonstrated a track record of promoting and leading change in LA. She has a sophistication where she is able to bring people along.”
As the daughter of public school music teachers and the mother of two teenagers, Samuel said she has long valued community and the role of education. She added that the LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which offers instruction, instruments, and performance opportunities to underserved youth, has helped weave the symphony into the life of the city, while also becoming central to the organization.
“You kind of expected it would have an impact on kids,” said Samuel, who most recently served as the LA Phil’s chief operating officer and president of the Hollywood Bowl. “But the way it came back and changed how the organization talked about itself, and how people thought, was the surprise.”
She added that one of the main questions facing the BSO as it reemerges in a world transformed by the pandemic and concurrent racial justice movement is “what we want to look like going forward.”
“Those are the real questions we’re all asking right now,” said Samuel, who studied violin and worked at Tanglewood early in her career. “There’s an opportunity in this moment to be thoughtful about who we are, and where we want to focus, and what our priorities should be.”
She added that although she still has a lot to learn about the organization and the communities it seeks to serve, she wants the BSO to be welcoming, a dynamic organization that embraces all of Boston.
“People need to see themselves represented on stage, and I think in classical music, generally, that’s been a challenge,” said Samuel, who noted the importance of “opportunity for artists of color and for people in the audience, therefore, to see artists of color, and to see women on the podium.”
“Whether it’s repertoire, or artists, I think that in terms of being welcoming, we need to represent lots of different voices,” she said.
It’s all part of ensuring the BSO remains relevant.
“I want you to feel like the BSO is not always a treasure so much as a resource,” she said. “So, still a treasure. I think it’s great to be a treasure, but also a really deeply connected resource.”
Nelsons, who met Samuel over the summer at Tanglewood, said he looked forward to working closely with her in the coming years.
“All of us at the BSO are committed to a future of engagement with an ever-widening community of listeners and partners in our city, the country, and around the world,” Nelsons said in a statement to the Globe. “Gail’s wealth of experience, great passion for music and community, and distinctive creative approach to collaboration will play an essential role in continuing this vision.”
In the meantime, Samuel, who’s settling into Boston with her children and husband, the actor William Christian, said she’s looking forward to opening night, when music — and audiences — will once again fill Symphony Hall.
“Settled is a long way from where we are,” said Samuel, who recently bought a house that “looks like we just got here two weeks ago.”
“That said,” she added, “I feel every day when I wake up that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”