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Boston Symphony Orchestra chief Gail Samuel explores how Tanglewood can be welcoming for everyone

Last year, she became the first woman to lead the BSO. This year, she's set her sights on enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion on and off stage

Gail Samuel at Symphony Hall_2(Ken Richardson).jpg

Boston Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Gail Samuel at Symphony Hall in Boston.

LENOX — Mission possible?

Confronting the challenge of wooing listeners back to concerts, widening the audience by appealing to multi-generational groups, and pushing an often-insular industry perceived as elitist by some into diversity and inclusion on stage and in the choice of repertoire. That’s the goal of Gail Samuel — the first woman to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra — in her second year as the president/CEO, and her top-of-mind preoccupations as the Tanglewood season presents a vastly altered program landscape.

There’s music by living American and international composers, especially women and African-Americans, on virtually every concert program.

Samuel, 54, was appointed in February 2021 after a 28-year career at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she had been chief operating officer, executive director, acting president and CEO, as well as president of the Hollywood Bowl, summer home of the Philharmonic. Discovering Tanglewood in the late 1980s, she was a student violinist and then a staff member at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) for high-school age musicians.

A clear sign of Samuel’s major priorities is the recent appointment of Sandra St. Fleur Wright in the newly created position of vice president of talent and equity.

"Sandra’s appointment not only reflects a modern evolution of our human resources function,” said Samuel, “but also signifies our deep commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion across the BSO. We want to ensure that every person, regardless of their individual background or circumstances, feels welcomed at the BSO."

St. Fleur Wright has led large-scale transformation efforts at Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UCLA Health. Most recently, she was VP of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion at Lesley University in Cambridge.

"I look forward to working with Gail and the rest of the BSO team to ensure that we enjoy the best talent the industry has to offer, while simultaneously working to fully embrace the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion in everything we do,” St. Fleur Wright stated.

The Eagle’s recent conversation with Samuel in her office at the historic Tappan House on the Tanglewood grounds has been edited lightly for length:

Q: What would you emphasize as your top mission-driven priorities?

Gail Samuel: Arts organizations everywhere are responding to what’s going on in the world, with very significant change in many places. For our programming, I am a believer in representing people with different life experiences and backgrounds. It makes us more interesting and allows us to present more creative art. For example, pairing the Beethoven piano concertos with the works of three American women composers, which allows for reflection on how they connect to one another.

Q: Can you elaborate on the role Ms. St. Fleur Wright will play at the BSO?

Gail Samuel: That’s a position I created after I had been here for a few months. Organizations have thought traditionally about human resources, and what we’re seeing at the BSO and everywhere is a real broadening of that role to be thinking about organizational culture, how we approach our policies in an equitable, diverse and inclusive way across the organization, with our boards, staff and our musicians, how we think about people, their talent and pathway through their careers, and how we can provide development.

Q: What changes do you hope audiences are noticing on this campus?

Gail Samuel: So much will feel familiar, but people may not have seen the Linde Center for Music and Learning [opened in 2019 for one pre-pandemic season]. It’s a beautiful building and such a key element, since as much as we are about the music, we’re about this magical place.

Q: What led you to appoint Asadour Santourian to the newly created position of vice president, Tanglewood Music Center and Learning, overseeing both the TMC for aspiring young musicians and the Tanglewood Learning Institute programming?

Gail Samuel: The Tanglewood Music Center, focusing on the next generations, is such an important part of what the Boston Symphony is, so central to who we are, and those students have a great impact on the BSO because they force us to keep looking to the future. And now there’s the TLI for lifelong learning, there are such synergies there. And also bringing all our educational and community activities here and in Boston under one umbrella at the executive level of the organization, to bring more attention and focus to that.

Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of bringing audiences back, regaining lost revenue and restoring capacity to pre-pandemic levels?

Gail Samuel: In this last year, just being able to have concerts straight through and keep people safe was such a huge accomplishment for all of us in the arts who managed to do that. We lost $51 million of revenue, and we have incredible donor support [$61 million raised] and some federal grants [$10 million] which was fantastic, those sustained us and allowed us to keep our musicians and staff going. One of the huge benefits of being here now is a closer to normal experience (about 100 ticketed events). I’m trying not to think so much of getting back to 2019 levels. We have to think of our organizations differently now and determine where we want to grow. The ability to pivot and respond is good for us.

Q: How do you see the Popular Artists series fitting into the summers to come?

Gail Samuel: Having attended Bonnie Raitt, The Mavericks and James Taylor, it’s important to who we are, it’s a great way to be in this space and it’s wonderful music. I have presented a lot of popular music in my career, so wanting to bring new things, and popular, beloved artists, is something that absolutely fits here.

Q: Something new that’s emerged is “dynamic pricing” for Tanglewood concerts, tickets cost more or less depending on the level of presales to donors and general public buyer interest. Can you explain that further? 

Gail Samuel: It’s very common now for performing arts, sports, airlines. You make adjustment to prices closer to performance dates to align with demand, little changes up and down from time to time, it’s become standard. It’s also very important to us to have accessible ticket prices, so we’re very lucky that the Lawn at Tanglewood is this vast space, and we want to be available to anyone who wants to come.

Q: Broadening the audience to multi-generations must be an important goal?

Gail Samuel: We have such tremendously passionate audiences here in the Berkshires and in Boston, so we have a tremendous focus on that audience. But we really have to recognize the importance of widening our circle, toggling the tension between honoring tradition and recognizing the need to embrace change and risk, which is imperative to our future. The bottom line is we want our houses to be full for the artists on stage and also so the broadest group of people can be experiencing and enjoying it so we can be part of the community. It’s our job to figure out how we get there, to navigate those solutions.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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