LENOX — Hail and farewell: Tanglewood concerts are back, and Mark Volpe, the man primarily responsible for engineering their return, and much else besides, has retired to a life of travel, consulting and possibly teaching and writing a book.
It is a watershed moment for Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, emerging from lockdown, under a new president-CEO, into a world of change and conflicting pressures. Not least of these pressures is the lockdown’s heightened sway of video and streaming as a substitute for live performance. Tanglewood, as always, must both meet and transcend popular demands.
Volpe, 63, the BSO’s newly retired president-CEO, departed last month after 23 sometimes turbulent years in the front office. He delayed retirement four months to help plan the truncated six-week Tanglewood season about to begin. His successor, already on the job, is Gail Samuel, former CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she oversaw the Hollywood Bowl, a L.A. counterpart to the BSO’s summer festival.
For its first concert before a live audience in 16 months, the BSO returns to the stage of the Koussevitzky Shed Saturday night, July 10, in an all-Beethoven program. Music director Andris Nelsons will be on the podium in the first of six BSO appearances.
The program, appropriately for the occasion and Beethoven’s perennial appeal, is Beethoven at his most triumphant: the Fifth Symphony and the Fifth (“Emperor”) Piano Concerto, plus the lively “Prometheus” Overture. For good measure, Tanglewood favorite Emanuel Ax is the soloist.
It seems a wonder there’s any season at all. Only this past winter, as the state and country began coming out of pandemic mode, could the BSO seriously begin lining up programs that would put its musicians back to work and put audiences back into seats, socially distanced though they will be?
The season seems a glass half-full: six weeks of concerts instead of the usual eight; concerts 80 minutes long (without intermission) instead of the usual two hours; an orchestra of 75 instead of the normal 100.
No opera, no Mahler. No vocal music, either solo or choral. Nothing in Ozawa Hall. Limited use of the sparkling new Linde Center for Music and Learning. Chamber music only in the 5,000-seat, open-air Shed, where auditory as well as social distancing will prevail.
Overall, the schedule mirrors a normal season. Friday nights are given over to guest artists, beginning July 9 with The Knights, the imaginative Brooklyn chamber orchestra. Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons will feature BSO concerts as usual. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra – there will also be a truncated TMC session – will step out on Monday nights as in the past.
Repertoire, conductors and soloists for BSO concerts will be the customary mix of old and new, with short pieces by contemporary composers salted among more familiar works. The TMC will present an abbreviated Festival of Contemporary Music.
Volpe arrived in Boston in 1997 amid a crisis spawned by Seiji Ozawa. Under the former music director, BSO performances had become routine, orchestra morale was low and much of the music center faculty was in revolt over Ozawa’s dismissal of the school’s four highly regarded leaders. He accused them of a cabal against him.
Volpe stabilized the situation with the appointment of Ellen Highstein as permanent TMC director, and Ozawa, who apparently already had his eye on the Vienna State Opera, announced his resignation to go there two years later.
The list of Volpe’s subsequent accomplishments begins, front and center, with the 2014 ascent of Nelsons as BSO music director. Other accomplishments include construction of the year-round Linde Center and inauguration of its educational programs.
Also, Volpe launched an artistic partnership with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, created an expansive BSO streaming platform, and oversaw a tripling of the BSO's endowment to $540 million, plus $61 raised during the lockdown. He helped to create – here’s to you, Berkshire businesses – an expanded Popular Artists series during Tanglewood’s shoulder seasons. Through it all, he kept his focus on Tanglewood, not only as a performance venue, but also, at heart, on its advancement of classical music through the TMC’s training programs.
In a farewell message to BSO donors, Volpe wrote: “Before I started this job, I was, of course, familiar with the BSO’s role in our culture. But what I learned from the moment I arrived, and what I have experienced every day since, is the rich culture within this organization, which is deeply rooted in a shared belief in the power and importance of music in everyone’s lives.”
A clarinet player, himself, and the son of an orchestral trumpeter, Volpe had headed the Baltimore and Minneapolis orchestras before coming to the BSO from the Detroit Symphony. His BSO record with conductors is not spotless.
After Ozawa’s departure, Volpe single-mindedly went after James Levine to be simultaneous music director of the BSO and the Met. Levine created an exciting time for the BSO, but there was a three-year interregnum before he could take over. He then lasted only three years until physical problems, followed by accusations of sexual abuses, did him in. (The New York Times reported that Volpe actually had to fire his chosen music director.) Another three-year interregnum followed until it was Nelsons’ time. The BSO survived under guest conductors.
Construction of the $35 million Linde Center has to be accounted one of Volpe’s greatest legacies. The stunningly beautiful four-studio building, at the highest point on the campus, gave the BSO a first-class venue for teaching, recording and public events, such as lectures and master classes.
With such programs and availability for community use, the new facility is intended to give Tanglewood and the BSO a year-round presence in the Berkshires. Indeed, under Learning Center director Sue Elliott, events ranging from weddings to concerts by Berkshire musicians were already taking place in the offseason before the pandemic shut everything down.
What will next summer be like, if there even is a next summer?
Will a new COVID outbreak force further program arrangements? How will the BSO adjust to new budget realities? Will Tanglewood revert to a 12-week season (eight weeks classical, four weeks chamber and popular)? Or, under a new leader, will it evolve into a format altogether different? Will people want to rub elbows in a fully reopened Shed? Will they come out for classical music or will they stay home and stream music, movies, what-not?
As in everything else COVID-related, so many questions, so few answers.
For now, a new era begins. Hail and farewell.