Q&A with Mark Volpe: Soon-to-be former Boston Symphony Orchestra CEO

A student from the Edison School drums for BSO managing director Mark Volpe / Photo courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra

By Sara Magalio
BU News Service

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s President and CEO, Mark Volpe, will retire at the end of February 2021. Volpe, who announced his upcoming retirement in late January, will have been the head of the world-renowned music organization for 23 years upon his retirement.

As CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Volpe heads up the BSO, Boston Pops Orchestra, the Tanglewood Music Center and the company’s real estate holdings in Boston and the Berkshires. Volpe has been in the field for some 40 years when taking into account his previous positions with symphonies in other cities. 

“During Volpe’s tenure, the orchestra expanded its reach through a wide variety of social media platforms, discounted ticket programs for students and young professionals, and education and community engagement programs in Boston and the Berkshires, as well as through national and international major broadcast activities,” according to a Boston Symphony Orchestra press release. 

The organization also announced in January that they have elected civic leader Barbara W. Hostetter as the next chair of the board of trustees. Hostetter, who has served on the board of trustees since 2014, will begin a three-year term in March 2021 and will lead the search for the next CEO with the help of the board of trustees, the music director, orchestra, staff and other stakeholders.

BU News Service spoke with Volpe about his decision to retire as CEO, his experiences during his tenure and where he would like to see the BSO evolve in the future.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sara Magalio: Why did you decide that now would be the time to start thinking about stepping down as CEO?

Mark Volpe: This would be my 23rd year here, and prior to that I was the CEO in Detroit for close to seven years, and before that I had senior positions in Minnesota and Baltimore, so you are talking 37 years in which I was a CEO for 30-31 of them. 

The average career expectancy for someone in my position is probably under seven years,  so you could argue I’ve had at least three lives as a CEO here in terms of how it typically works.

I’ve done it, I’ve done it for so many years. The orchestra, artistically and financially speaking, is as strong as it’s ever been. Relative to the rest of the orchestra field we have the strongest balance sheet, but we are not immune to financial challenges, I don’t want to suggest that.

To be really candid, working 80 hours a week, for 50- plus weeks a year, for 30 years., I don’t want to say it takes its toll, but there are other things in life. 

SM: Are there any particular accomplishments or initiatives that have been a part of your tenure that you are especially proud of?

MV: I mean this is one of the great orchestras of the world, and I think building on that incredible artistic tradition is sort of an abstract concept, but nonetheless, you want to leave an institution in better shape than you got it in.

I think we certainly have invested a lot of energy in making the orchestra adapt. When we lost our February tour to Asia because of the coronavirus, instead of just coming here and doing a few concerts for Valentine’s Day and playing Romeo and Juliet, we broke up the orchestra and we had 12 different pop-up concerts in homeless shelters for children and veterans, battered women’s shelters, hospitals, and we were even at Angell Animal Medical Center pet hospital, and this culminated in bringing the community to the hall.

I think that that outward focus is important. Big cultural institutions tend to have an inward perspective, and there’s nothing wrong with being a little introspective, but we’ve sort of reconsidered that.

Another area that I think we should feel especially proud of as an institution is with Andris, our music director, in particular, we have resurrected our touring around the world. Also, we are committed to a Shostakovich cycle that has already won four Grammys, three of them for best orchestral performance. So I think focusing on the international stature of the orchestra and building its international brand is hopefully going to be perceived as one of my legacies.  

SM: Can you speak to the developments that have been made at the Tanglewood Music Center during your tenure?

MV: I would say, one of the most physical manifestations of my tenure is the four buildings at Tanglewood. Tanglewood includes 103 buildings, and we just added the first four winterized buildings on the campus. The primary occupants are us in the summer, but the Tanglewood Music Center, the Tanglewood Learning Institute and the BSO players all use these facilities to coach and mentor. 

During the off-season, they are available to the various communities out there that comprise the Berkshires, and these facilities are being used very successfully, and this is another manifestation of a fundamental shift to a more externally focused outlook. 

SM: Have there been any standout challenges that you have had to overcome as CEO?

MV: When I started in this business, the major media companies included Sony, BMG, Phillips, Deutsche Grammophon and the Universal Music Group. Now, if you talk to anybody in investments, the major media companies are named Apple, Google and Amazon, and they have become major forces in many other areas besides music.

One of our challenges has been dealing with Google and Google Play and keeping their attention. With Deutsche Grammophon we are still a big deal. I go to Berlin and meet at the universal offices, and they are thrilled to have the Boston Symphony there, and we work through whatever arrangements.

With Google though we are a niche play, a small niche play, with all of the business Google is in, And this is likewise with Amazon and Apple.

In the old days, hypothetically, if the Boston Symphony sold a CD it got a dollar, for a digital download of a Boston Symphony track for 99 cents it would get 10 cents, with streaming now, it’s a small fraction of that.

We used to be able to generate real revenue from media. Those days are gone.

SM: If making money through selling records is no longer a major source of revenue for the BSO because of the ubiquity of streaming services, what’s the money maker now?

MV: Now the money is made through touring, because people still want the communal experience of going to a concert, so thank god for that.

The media has become more and more a way of driving people to concerts, because you’re not going to make money selling records anymore.

We used to sell hundreds of thousands of records. No one can do that now. Now you can look at the streams on Spotify, and it’s that number and more, but it’s a statutory rate and it’s a fraction of what we used to make.

50 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, you would tour to sell records. Think The Stones or Madonna, whenever they would make a record they would go on tour to sell the hell out of it. Now it’s the reverse, artists create media to try to drive people to concerts. The revenue is almost all in performances. 

SM: Have you noticed a shift in what audiences connect with as far as traditional concerts versus more innovative, collaborative performances?

MV: I would say it’s a little bit of both. If we do an all- Beethoven we don’t need to put up visuals on projector screens for it to sell out. That being said, we are doing more and more multimedia pieces that are themed and tied to historical or current events. 

Would the Boston Symphony have done something innovative with multimedia like this 30 years ago? No. But is the Boston Symphony going to do 52 weeks of that? Also no. 

Multimedia shows are complicated to produce, and anything we do, we want to do at a high level. With our Boston Pops concerts, there is always something visual. We drop the screen down as a visual aid. That being said, we have a sort of church and state separation between the pops and the symphony, but exploring different formats and different multimedia-type pieces is certainly something that the Boston Symphony is doing.

SM: So the classic BSO concerts won’t be going anywhere, even if the BSO does experiment with more multimedia pieces?

MV: We will still do a concert of a contemporary piece, a Mozart concerto and a Tchaikovsky symphony. Those concerts aren’t going anywhere because people still flock to them, here and at Tanglewood. We are not going to convert every concert into a multimedia experience, but on occasion we will look at multimedia works.

Of course, Beethoven won’t be writing any multimedia pieces, but with contemporary composers who have access to film et cetera, of course we would be more interested in combining multimedia elements into the concert, because contemporary pieces lend themselves to that.

SM: Do you have any advice for young musicians who are entering the music field in this more dynamic, changing time?

MV: What I tell young musicians is that my dad played in an orchestra for over 50 years, and basically his job description was rehearsals and concerts. 

For today’s musicians, even at the Boston Symphony, the pinnacle of their profession, it is about a whole myriad of things now. You have to be an advocate. You have to be able to brand yourself. You have to be flexible and resilient. You have to be able to teach, and not just a private lesson, but be able to go in front of groups of people and teach.

When we send groups of musicians out into the community to perform, they have to get in front of people and introduce pieces and explain things and demonstrate. In today’s ever more cluttered marketplace, you have to be able to advocate for your work.

I’m a big believer that if you teach someone just to play the instrument well, that’s not enough. You have to teach them how to talk about it, and you have to teach them how to make money because not everyone is going to get into the Boston Symphony. Some of these musicians will form their own groups and will need money to start up their projects. 

Marketing yourself and branding yourself is crucial. Knowing a little bit about marketing, finance and public relations, that is all critical for young musicians.

SM: After you step down, where would you like to see the BSO go in the next five to 10 years down the road?

MV: Well we own some real estate around Symphony Hall, and our hall acoustically speaking is one of the great halls of the world, on par with Vienna and Amsterdam, but the experience with the surrounding public areas is dated. So there is an opportunity like we did with Tanglewood to build out the physical complex, to have additional multipurpose spaces for education and civic engagement.

I feel that we are about a decade or so behind the time. Since we own the whole block, the adjacent block and we own property across the street, I would like to see something come out of that, and of course that’s a multi-year project. 

Ultimately, it all comes down to institutional sustainability. The orchestra has been around for close to 140 years. It’s one of the older orchestras in the world, but you want to see it prosper for generations to come. 

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