NEW YORK — It’s been an eventful few months for big orchestras in the northeast. At the Boston Symphony Orchestra, chief executive Gail Samuel suddenly resigned in December after less than two years in the job, for reasons that have still not been made public. Her departure alongside a wave of other exits by senior leadership has thrust the orchestra administration into uncharted waters.
The New York Philharmonic, meanwhile, has been making news of a different variety. After opening David Geffen Hall, its impressive new home at Lincoln Center in October, the Philharmonic announced in February that the superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel will be leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic and taking over as its music director in 2026.
It would be all too easy to reductively juxtapose New York’s soaring orchestral fortunes with the recent front office turmoil in Boston. More constructive, however, might be to think of the entire American orchestral scene as one big Research and Development lab for a field that is striving to modernize, redefine its mission, and retain its relevance. As the BSO enters a period of rebuilding, it should not only learn from its own recent challenges but also from innovations that are bearing fruit elsewhere on the orchestral map.
New York is a good place to start. In mid-February, I caught an invigorating double bill at Geffen Hall, a two-part event led by the brilliant conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, currently music director of the San Francisco Symphony. I had attended portions of the grand opening festivities back in the fall, but was eager for a chance to see the hall in action on a more typical week — not just its splashy new main auditorium but also an intriguing new second space called the Sidewalk Studio.
The example and potential of this smaller second space in particular seemed relevant to the BSO’s own ongoing evolution. Around the country, orchestras large and small have been adding flexible smaller spaces in the spirit of New York’s new studio, and in the process, opening up a vast range of creative possibilities with the potential to enliven and transform entire seasons.
Symphony Hall of course stands at the core of the BSO’s identity, the bespoke jewel-box holding the jewel, and it is one of the acoustic treasures of the world. But keep in mind that the orchestra also owns the entire block along Huntington Avenue down to Gainsborough Street.
Most of it is not currently being put to artistic use, making it very tempting to speculate about what could be possible. While some concert-goers may be delighted to find a UPS store or, in previous years, a tanning salon so conveniently located next to where they hear their Beethoven, I suspect many more would prefer a space where they could experience a diversity of creative encounters — and an unmistakably modern place where the orchestra could work toward building the audiences of the future.
Back on the main plaza of Lincoln Center in New York, the new $550 million Geffen Hall is built within the shell of the old Avery Fisher Hall, whose footprint remains largely unchanged. What first catches the eye is the public lobby space, now enclosed by glass walls that allow anyone passing by to see directly into the building. On the warm opening weekend this fall, the orchestra left open the new enormous garage-style door into the lobby, creating a seamless flow between the hall and the city at large.
That sense of invitation and openness is further underscored by an enormous wall of screens, also visible from outside, onto which the orchestra’s subscription concerts are now streamed. With or without tickets, any member of the public can walk in, pick a spot to sit, and take in a performance.
On a basic level it is pointless folly to compare Geffen’s exterior with that of Symphony Hall. One is modern, the other historic. More relevant is the simple notion that each reflects its builders’ aspirations for the place of art in society. When conceiving of Boston’s hall in the late 19th century, BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson wanted a temple of high culture in the classic European mold. Architect Charles Follen McKim delivered a masterpiece, and to this day Symphony Hall, with its brick-sealed elegance and basilica-style layout, projects a notion of the concert hall as a site of aesthetic and moral uplift, necessarily set apart from everyday life and the world around it.
Geffen Hall emphasizes a different set of priorities. Under the leadership of Gary McCluskie and Diamond Schmitt Architects, the old auditorium has been completely overhauled, with the formal proscenium gone and 500 seats removed. The orchestra is now positioned 25 feet further into the hall, and audience seating has been reconceived in the surround-style “vineyard” model used in the Berlin Philharmonie and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Disney Hall, the latter clearly being an inspiration for Geffen as a whole. Groups of seats surround the stage on all sides, including behind the orchestra. The ensemble plays, quite literally, in the middle of its public.
I have heard only one unamplified program in the space, but it was already clear that acoustician Paul Scarbrough and his team have made dramatic improvements over the old hall whose sound drew criticism from the day it opened. On this visit, Salonen was leading works by Berio and Beethoven as well as the US premiere of his own work, “Kinema,” a concerto performed by Anthony McGill, the Philharmonic’s superb principal clarinetist who was recently a guest soloist with the BSO.
Overall the sound in the hall was bright, bold, and alive, if not quite yet ideally balanced. Orchestras take time to adjust their own playing to any new space, and the acousticians themselves will continue making adjustments. It’s already a major step forward, and I predict it will only improve from here.
The second part of the evening’s doubleheader felt no less significant. At 10 p.m., rather than simply drifting off into the night as the BSO’s public has no choice but to do, a portion of the audience relaxed in the lobby with drinks until 10:30, at which point they assembled for what the orchestra calls Nightcap, one of several series now taking place in Geffen’s Sidewalk Studio.
Located in the northeast corner of the building, which had previously held a drab conference room, the studio is a sleek, intimate recital space with floor to ceiling windows looking onto Broadway and 65th Street. The hall’s activities, as with the lobby screens, are once again visible to the city around it.
On this night, Salonen curated an hourlong program with three of his own smaller-scale works given skilled and utterly absorbing performances by the Philharmonic players. The cabaret-style event, hosted by violist and broadcaster Nadia Sirota, had a far less formal vibe, with Salonen introducing each of the works and tossing in dry-witted anecdotes along the way. It was the kind of up-close, personalized encounter with a composer and his music that can be revelatory. It also complemented the orchestral portion of the evening, adding up to a far more textured and multidimensional impression of Salonen’s art.
Other Nightcap programs this season have been (or will be) curated by the trailblazing vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, the pianist Daniil Trifonov, the composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and the Gamelan ensemble Dharma Swara, an American-based group performing traditional Indonesian percussion music. The studio is also used for noontime concerts, family programming, artist recitals, and on and on. The space, one Philharmonic administrator told me, is a game changer.
New York’s orchestra is hardly the only one to benefit from having a smaller, flexible second space where it can pursue programming that reaches beyond the confines of the subscription series. The San Francisco Symphony has its Soundbox, now in its ninth season, with guest-curated programming that has become so popular the orchestra recently took it on tour to Europe. Over the years, other orchestras have followed suit.
The BSO is unquestionably missing out by not having a comparable space. Think of all the potential for intimate and creative programming involving the extraordinary visiting artists who perform as soloists with the orchestra. Imagine, for instance, the acclaimed German baritone Christian Gerhaher, who recently made a show-stealing appearance in the BSO’s “Tannhäusser,” performing Schubert’s “Winterreise” at some point during his visit to town. That recital would instantly be one of the hottest tickets in the city. Or to take another example, the English composer and conductor Thomas Adès just led the BSO in a galvanizing evening of his own orchestral works. If it had been followed by a casual late-night presentation of his chamber music in a smaller second space, every seat would have been taken.
More broadly, the orchestra could vastly diversify its offerings, becoming more things to more people, its programs unified by their quality and searching creative spirit. It could pursue more innovative or risk-taking ideas, provide an artistic platform to showcase the individuality of its own musicians, invite guest curators from across the city and around the world, and, at the widest level, simply open itself up to the larger creative ferment in Boston and beyond. All of it would bring a sense of unpredictability and surprise to complement the more predictable rituals of the week-by-week subscription season.
Tanglewood points in some of these directions, but it spans over two months of the year. And while there are various venues the BSO can and does seek out at the nearby New England Conservatory and elsewhere, none of these can replace a purpose-built space that becomes an organic part of the BSO experience and, fundamentally, a place for broadening its own artistic identity.
Meanwhile, the orchestra is beginning its search for Gail Samuel’s successor. Asked for more details, a BSO spokesperson said, in a statement, that the board will meet next month “to discuss and define a search process.” The statement added that the orchestra’s current interim leader, Jeff Dunn, will not be a candidate for the permanent position.
These are critical times. The next president must be a visionary leader with the skills to bring the organization with them. Yet as the BSO searches, it is also surely considering what kind of organization it will become. In addition to reexamining many older assumptions about the nature and structure of its season, it should be prioritizing the creation of a transformational new performance space alongside Symphony Hall, an outpost of the modern right next to the citadel of the historic. The point is not to be “like New York” or anywhere else — but to become a stronger, more creative, diverse, and vibrant version of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.