Boston Symphony Orchestra Managing Director Mark Volpe: Conducting the whole team


LENOX -- Like a captain steering a cultural ship through stormy waters, Boston Symphony Orchestra Managing Director Mark Volpe is dealing with potentially treacherous, shifting currents while celebrating the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood, the county's leading tourist attraction.

With a degree in law as well as in music, Volpe, 54, served as executive director of the Detroit Symphony, as vice president and general manager of the Minnesota Orchestra, and as general manager of the Baltimore Symphony before taking the helm in Boston in September 1997.

He discussed Tanglewood's past, present and future in a recent interview with The Eagle in his office at the pre-Civil War Tappan House on the Lenox-Stockbridge campus.

The following are excerpts from that interview. Q: What is the timeline for appointing a new music director to succeed James Levine?

A: I think the upcoming season at Tanglewood and the winter season should better inform us. We're not going to commit to a specific timeline; we want a music director who will continue the spirit of tradition and innovation that is very much part of the ethos of the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood.

Q: In terms of profit and loss, how does the Tan glewood season come out? Two to three million dollars in red ink?

A: Yeah, depends on the year; sometimes it can be a little more. But we have an endowment that continues [to grow]. Actually, there's only one part of our operation which actually makes money, and that's the Holiday Pops. We have annual giving, people contribute, but everything we do requires some degree of support, whether it's sponsorship, annual giving or an endowment draw.

People should realize Tangle wood is an expensive proposition. Students come here and do not pay any tuition or room and board. This is 526 acres; we keep it up pretty nice. We have 80 structures; some are in less than good condition. The cost of operating Tanglewood is substantial, but the benefits outweigh that. It's what helps define the Boston Symphony. Of all the orchestras in the world, there's only one that has Tanglewood. A lot of orchestras are struggling with summers.

Q: Is Tanglewood struggling because of the operating costs of the entire campus?

A: We remain absolutely committed to keeping the eight weeks [of the BSO] as we build out along the shoulder season. At a certain point, we are what we are; we do have a mission to play great Western art music, train the next generation of musicians and certainly in the shoulder seasons where we can add dates that generate activity, that's good for Tanglewood and for our friends in the hospitality business. We want to do that, but we're not about to go the way of other summer venues that de-emphasize classical music.

We have to be aware of where the market is. Audience tastes have changed and the level of music literacy is not what it once was. We have to be sensitive to that, but we are the Boston Symphony and we're very proud of the Boston Pops. It's kind of a balance issue, and at least in my tenure we're not going to abandon that. It is a challenging environment, but struggling is not the right word at all.

Q: In terms of the 75th anniversary as a turning point, what changes do you foresee at Tanglewood; what will a concertgoer's experience be five or 10 years from now?

A: We're in the process of raising well over $60 million or $70 million that will specifically address physical-plant needs -- $30 million we'll spend, and $30 to $40 million we'll put into an endowment to support ongoing maintenance needs. Certainly the Main Gate could use some reconsideration. Some of the other facilities need to be reconsidered, so preserving the core and modernizing it. You're not going to see flashing neon. In terms of the artistic, hard to answer until we have a music director. In terms of our commitment to making the Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood Music Center absolutely central to anything at Tanglewood, that is a given. Beyond that, there's a lot of play.

Q: In view of Tanglewood's $60 million-a-year impact on the Berkshires economy, what do you think the community can and should be doing to sustain the venue?

A: I think an appreciation that Tanglewood is first and foremost the summer home of the Boston Symphony. We move the entire orchestra and a good part of the staff here. It's not going to become a rock venue, [although] it's nice to have opportunities to present other types of music.

Q: Does it startle you that, according to your own marketing studies, only 3 percent of year-round Berkshires residents attend classical concerts at Tanglewood?

A: I'm not that surprised; I wish it were higher. But understanding that people have different tastes, and we do respect that, we try to offer a fairly wide variety, so we're trying to be responsive.


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