Gail Samuel, who joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra just 18 months ago as the first woman president and chief executive in the orchestra’s 140-year history, will leave the symphony on Jan. 3 — an abrupt end to a brief tenure.
The symphony announced the resignation on Friday, giving no reason for her departure.
Jeffrey D. Dunn, who serves on the BSO’s Board of Advisors and Finance Committee, will become interim president and chief executive officer, effective on Jan. 4.
Board chair Barbara Hostetter called Samuel a “steadying force” during “a time when stabilizing the institution was of paramount priority.”
“Gail came to the BSO as we were beginning to chart a critical course through the very consequential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hostetter said in a statement. “She also led the BSO through a vital turning point of generational change, setting in motion a creative vision that reflects the BSO’s commitment to diversity. As a result of her expertise, broad lens and hard work, the BSO is well positioned to continue with this important progress.”
Samuel, who before coming to the BSO served as a longtime executive with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said that stepping down after the Holiday Pops offered ”a natural time with limited disruption.”
“It was an honor to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s most celebrated orchestras, particularly during such a significant time in history,” Samuel said in a statement. “I hold great pride in all that was accomplished during such a challenging time for the arts and culture sector.”
A spokeswoman for the BSO said the orchestra declined to provide further comment on the matter.
When Samuel arrived at the BSO in June 2021, she inherited an organization severely hampered by the pandemic: The orchestra had already lost an estimated $51.5 million in revenue. It had called off scores of concerts at Symphony Hall, canceled the 2020 Tanglewood season, and shed 50 of the orchestra’s 180 full-time administrative employees during a painful round of layoffs. Musicians had agreed to substantially reduce their pay, and the orchestra hadn’t given an in-person performance at Symphony Hall since March 2020.
Meanwhile, the BSO, like other arts organizations, was under pressure to become more diverse — in repertoire, staffing, guest artists — in response to rising social justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.
“Whether it’s repertoire, or artists, I think that in terms of being welcoming, we need to represent lots of different voices,” Samuel previously told the Globe. She was also bullish on the orchestra’s future financial and performance prospects, saying in a separate interview: “The good news is that this has been a well-positioned organization before” the pandemic.
During his tenure of almost a quarter-century, Samuel’s predecessor, Mark Volpe, had grown the BSO into an international powerhouse, boasting a $509 million endowment in early 2021 and a pre-pandemic operating budget of just more than $100 million.
Samuel threw herself into the work, heading immediately to Tanglewood for a shortened season and gearing up to reopen Symphony Hall to audiences that fall.
Meanwhile, she prioritized making the BSO more welcoming to diverse audiences. She launched a fellowship for early-career musicians from historically underrepresented backgrounds, and held concerts devoted to social justice, and performances outside of Symphony Hall.
But the relationship seemed troubled from the beginning, said one longtime BSO employee, who called it a “chemistry problem,” describing an early “adversarial footing” exacerbated by economic pressures and a staff overworked and suffering low morale following the layoffs.
“She had the best interest of the orchestra at heart,” said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss sensitive internal matters. “This is a damn shame. I wish she could have worked out. I think she’ll have success elsewhere.”
Another long-time BSO insider said it was clear as early as last summer that “things weren’t copacetic.”
The announcement’s timing clearly came to a surprise to some, as Hostetter called a series of hastily organized internal meetings on Zoom Friday morning to discuss the news.
Dunn, a Back Bay resident, retired last year as the head of the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces “Sesame Street.”
Hostetter described Dunn as a “much-admired executive, recognized across industries for an innate ability to lead complex organizations with sound judgment and innovative ideas.”
“We especially hold immense respect for Jeff’s experience in guiding organizations in times of change and are grateful to have him help us continue our forward momentum,” she said in a statement.
Dunn said he was “honored” to step into the role, praising the BSO’s artistic achievements, adding in a statement that he looked forward “to collaborating with Music Director Andris Nelsons as the organization continues on its important path of cultural progress and financial stability.”
Samuel has agreed to consult as the board seeks her permanent successor, which the board plans to begin discussing at its January meeting.
“When I arrived at the BSO, I was dedicated to reopening Tanglewood and Symphony Hall, and to increasing creativity,” and “more broadly representing the rich diversity that exists in our city,” said Samuel. “I am confident that the work I have done and the tools we put in place will enable future growth and diversity and enrich the BSO’s rich legacy of artistry.”