The Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor invites you to its ZOOM meeting on July 20 to hear a presentation by Mark Volpe, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on how the Orchestra is adapting its operations and programming in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The meeting begins at noon and will last to approximately 1:30.
If you would like to attend, please contact Ken Hillenburg (Hillenburg@me.com) or Dennis Powers (Carhart2018@aol.com) to obtain the ZOOM login information.
Mark Volpe has been President and Chief Executive Officer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since September 1997. Prior to that, he ran the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He recently announced that he would retire at the end of February 2021.
Volpe left Detroit for Boston at the urging of the renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. “Yo-Yo was the first guy to call me,” Volpe recalls, “before I ever was approached by a board member.” He guided the organization through the transition when longtime music director Seiji Ozawa stepped down in 2002, after 29 years as Music Director, to become Principal Conductor of the Vienna State Opera. He was instrumental in recruiting James Levine to succeed Ozawa and, after recurrent health problems forced Levine to resign in 2011, in identifying Andris Nelsons to take the helm of the Orchestra.
During his tenure, Volpe strengthened the Orchestra’s financial underpinnings; its endowment grew from $149.9 million in 1997 to $435 million at the beginning of this year. The operating budget simultaneously grew from $49.9 million to $85.3 million as the Orchestra continued to stage 10 months of concerts each year: the subscription season at Symphony Hall in Boston from October through April, the Boston Pops season from mid-May through mid-June, and the Tanglewood Music Festival in western Massachusetts in July and August.
Volpe pioneered efforts to diversify the Orchestra’s audience base; for instance, 700 rush tickets are made available at $7.00 for each Thursday evening performance during the subscription season. Volpe also ushered the Orchestra into the technological age. “Figuring out the new media world remains a challenge,” he is aware. Media today is “much more fractured, and it’s a much more niche world. … One thing we can learn from sports empires is how they use media to drive people to events.” The Orchestra’s web site today draws 7.3 million visitors each year and has generated a total of $85 million in revenue.
In summary, Volpe had positioned the Boston Symphony Orchestra to continue thriving in the years ahead. Then Covid-19 changed everything.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced major changes in society. In Michigan and elsewhere, “shelter in place” Orders issued by governors effectively have all but closed down large portions of the economy since March. Public gatherings of all types have been severely restricted when they have not disappeared altogether. The performing arts are not immune. Like sporting events, they bring people together in large numbers in confined spaces — in New York City, for instance, all Broadway theaters have been shuttered by Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio since March 12.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is a prime example of this dynamic.
After March 23, when Governor Baker ordered all non-essential Massachusetts businesses and organizations to close, the Orchestra cancelled all performances at Symphony Hall through the end of its subscription season in April. On April 8, the Orchestra cancelled the May through June season of the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. It subsequently went on to cancel the annual July 4 Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade in downtown Boston. On May 15, for the first time since World War II, the July through August concerts that are the centerpiece of the Tanglewood Music Festival in western Massachusetts also were cancelled.
These and other ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, as Volpe acknowledged in an interview with the Berkshire Eagle on April 1, “are external forces beyond our control.” Box office sales account for about half of the Orchestra’s total revenues. The cancelled performances consequently led to a $3 million-a-month shortfall in the Orchestra’s cash position. Its endowment declined 20% in value as the stock market plunged since February. That status quo, Volpe realized, was “not tenable in the long term.”
On April 17, much as the University of Michigan and Michigan State recently did, the Orchestra announced a series of cost-saving measures in an effort to staunch the hemorrhaging. “We look towards a brighter future,” Volpe said as he detailed those steps, “and returning to our cherished experiences of music’s power to unite us again as the BSO community.” He will describe the pathway to that goal in this presentation.