Chad Smith, who as chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic traces some of his most formative musical experiences to Boston’s Symphony Hall, was named Monday as the next president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
It is the second time in recent years the BSO has sought talent from the LA Philharmonic, once called “the most important orchestra in America,” to lead the Boston symphony, which began searching for a new leader after Gail Samuel, the other alum, abruptly stepped down in December.
Jeffrey D. Dunn, who has led the organization on an interim basis since Samuel’s departure,will continue in the role until Smith assumes his duties early this fall, likely in late September.
“I’m so excited,” Smith said in a phone interview. “The BSO is one of the great, great orchestras in the world.”
Smith, 51, has filled a variety of positions in his more than two decades at the LA Phil, where he developed a reputation as a proponent of conductors, composers, and soloists who is also committed to innovative programming.
As chief executive, a role he has filled for four years, Smith has overseen one of the country’s most dynamic orchestras, a sprawling operation that produces hundreds of concerts annually across multiple venues. The orchestra, whose more than $150 million operating budget is considered the largest of any symphony in the world, is also known for its community work, especially the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, or YOLA, which provides free musical instruments and lessons to roughly 1,700 young people in the area.
In Boston, Smith will oversee one of the so-called Big Five orchestras, itself an expansive operation, rich in real estate holdings, with an endowment valued at $484 million and revenues that totaled $98 million in fiscal year 2022. In addition to its core offerings of the symphony orchestra, Tanglewood, and the Boston Pops, the BSO is seeking new programming initiatives to expand its community reach as audience demographics and ticket-buying habits evolve.
“I see this as a huge opportunity to partner with [BSO music director] Andris Nelsons, the great musicians, and really lead the BSO into its next chapter,” said Smith. “I have always been focused on how we take these immense, storied institutions and make them more relevant, more compelling, and more brilliant for the world that we live in. That is something that really excites me about the Boston symphony.”
Smith inherits an orchestra still reeling from Samuel’s sudden departure, just 18 months after she started the job in June 2021. The BSO has been tight-lipped about troubles during Samuel’s tenure, which saw numerous top executives leave the organization: At the time of her resignation, just two members of the eight-person executive team had been with the organization for more than 18 months. (Some departures included long-planned retirements and people in interim positions.)
Smith, who worked closely with Samuel over the course of nearly two decades at the LA Phil, said her experience in Boston isn’t “something I can speak to.”
“She’s an extraordinary human being,” he said. “She’s a great arts administrator, and she’s a dear friend.”
Search committee chair John Loder called Smith a “tested leader.”
“Chad is an extraordinarily accomplished executive with a track record of unrivaled success at producing environments where orchestras thrive, audiences experience orchestral music in both traditional and non-traditional ways, and one-of-a-kind partnerships flourish,” Loder, vice chair of the BSO board of trustees, said in a statement. “Chad possesses a singular ability to balance new programming initiatives with the critical preservation of artistic tradition at the highest level.”
The Boston job will be something of a homecoming for Smith, originally from Pennsylvania, who studied vocal performance at the New England Conservatory of Music and European history at Tufts University. He spent two summers at Tanglewood, and recalled several foundational musical experiences attending matinee performances at Symphony Hall.
“I can recall some of those performances like it was yesterday,” said Smith, remembering then-music director Seiji Ozawa. “There are just so many of those early orchestral moments, important musical moments that I experienced for the first time with this orchestra.”
But Smith assumes leadership of a BSO that’s been dramatically altered since his days as a student.
Like many performing arts organizations, the BSO saw ticket sales plummet during the pandemic, selling roughly 55,000 fewer tickets during the symphony season that just concluded compared to the 2018-19 season(though that season, the last before the pandemic, presented 13 more concerts).
The widespread social justice movement that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020 has also lent urgency to the orchestra’s efforts to cultivate more diverse audiences and offer concerts and programming that reach beyond the European canon.
“Great orchestras have to listen,” said Smith. “They have to think about themselves as serving the community: We’re arts organizations, we’re cultural organizations, but we’re also service organizations.”
He added that the BSO, with its long tradition, is well-positioned to present and interpret everything from canonical works by Beethoven to new works by up-and-coming composers.
“Make no mistake: Musicians and composers are absolutely bringing the world outside the concert hall into it,” he said. “So when we are able to uniquely connect the tradition — the canon — with new voices, I think that’s huge. That’s the work.”
Board chair Barbara W. Hostetter called the appointment an “exciting day for the BSO,” adding the board “is immensely impressed with Chad’s vast accomplishments and his vision for the future.”
Smith joined the LA Phil in 2002 as a programmer working on a new music series and classical offerings at the Hollywood Bowl, the orchestra’s summer home. After a brief stint at the New York Philharmonic, he returned to LA, where he was named chief operating officer in 2015, overseeing artistic programming, orchestra operations, production, and media, among other areas. He was named chief executive four years later.
Deborah Borda, who led the LA Phil for 17 years, called Smith a “visionary of what programming for an orchestra in the 21st century can mean.”
“There’s so many talents he brings,” said Borda, who now serves as president and chief executive of the NY Phil. She added that the challenges faced by the BSO also present a moment of opportunity. “Chad sees that all of the pieces are in place to have a remarkably successful organization.”
Nelsons, whose contract extends through the 2024-25 season and includes a clause to continue beyond that, welcomed Smith to the “BSO family.”
“We look forward to partnering with Chad to move the organization into a bright and promising future, where we will continue to treasure our rich legacy of achievement while embracing our mission to grow and evolve for our communities here in Boston, the Berkshires, and throughout the world,” he said in a statement.
Smith’s exit from the LA Phil marks the second major loss this year for the West Coast orchestra: In February, the symphony’s celebrated music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel announced he would leave Los Angeles in 2026 to lead the New York Philharmonic.
“My musicians and I are so grateful to Chad Smith for all that he has given to us, and to Los Angeles,” Dudamel said in a statement. “Chad has been a constant presence since I first arrived in LA, and we have been united in our vision of what the LA Phil can do for the people of this great city, and for the world of music.”
Smith, who said it’s healthy for arts organizations to bring in new ideas and leadership, expressed optimism for both organizations.
“I have every confidence the orchestra is going to fly,” he said, referring to the LA Phil. “This is absolutely part of my thinking in going to the Boston Symphony: I want to be a part of those decisions the orchestra and organization make about what we are carrying forward.”