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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: To BSO's new leader — break a leg, build a more harmonious leadership culture

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra heads west next month for its summer season, they’ll do so with a with a newly named future president and CEO.

While it will be the first time Tanglewood will welcome Chad Smith as the orchestra’s executive leader, his voice has (literally) echoed here. Before the BSO announced his new job this week, Mr. Smith was the chief executive officer for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the overture to the 51-year-old’s career in music began in Massachusetts, including some time in the Berkshires. He spent several years in the mid-1990s as a vocalist at the Tanglewood Music Center summer institute for young musicians, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in European history at Tufts University in a joint program with the New England Conservatory of Music, located in Boston, where he majored in vocal performance. He also earned a master’s degree in opera from the conservatory, where he has served as an elected trustee for the better part of a decade.

That Mr. Smith has familiarity and fond memories of both Boston and Tanglewood bodes well for his position atop the BSO, whose leadership structure has shown signs of instability of late. Smith was selected (and unanimously approved by BSO’s board) following a search process that begin in January after the orchestra’s first woman leader, Gail Samuel, departed abruptly late last year. She resigned after just 18 months on the job — a considerably shorter tenure than that of her predecessor Mark Volpe, who retired in 2021 after nearly 24 years in the position. At the same time, the vice president of the Tanglewood Music Center and Tanglewood Learning Institute also left his post less than two years in.

While Tanglewood seemed to bounce back stronger from COVID compared to many of its counterparts in the regional cultural sector, that transition and recovery process was likely a difficult one right around when Ms. Samuel came aboard in 2021. Yet given that there were little to no outwardly obvious issues with programming and performance during Ms. Samuel’s tenure, it’s possible that the sharpest issues were more internal and personality-related, although BSO leaders have been tight-lipped about the turmoil.

Still, Mr. Smith appears to know what he’s getting into and isn’t striking an intimidated tone but an excited one. “The BSO is going through things that all organizations go through at certain times,” Mr. Smith told The New York Times about the prospect of bringing some needed stability to the orchestra. In an interview with The Berkshire Eagle, he underscored the importance of both thinking boldly and listening deeply: “In my career, I’ve learned you listen first, you learn and that’s extremely important for any new executive. It’s understanding the elements that need to be celebrated and preserved, and what are the elements hungry for reimagining.”

Those are welcome words, though getting one’s arms around a renowned orchestra with such deep history, prestige and internal drama is easier said than done. But some of Mr. Smith’s peers in the high register of the orchestral world have attested to his ability to transpose those sentiments into reality. Thomas Morris, former chief executive for two of the so-called “Big Five” American symphony orchestras (including the BSO), called Mr. Smith a “visionary” artistic director for his work at the LA Philharmonic. Jesse Rosen, former president of the League of American Orchestras, also sang Mr. Smith’s praises, calling him “one of the great artistic planners and leaders in our field.”

We certainly like what we’re hearing about the incoming leader of the world-class orchestra that summers in our Berkshire backyard and anchors our county’s critical cultural economy. We wish Mr. Smith the best of luck in his new role, which we hope will usher in a harmonious new era for the BSO and Tanglewood.

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