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LAist Interview: Mark Volpe of the Boston Symphony

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Principal Flute Elizabeth Rowe performing Carter's Flute Concerto with the Boston Symphony led by Ludovic Morlot on 12.6.11. Photo by Kristen Loken
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After 20+ years, the Boston Symphony finally makes its way back to Los Angeles, for a performance this Saturday night at the Disney Hall. We got to chat with Mark Volpe, the Managing Director of the BSO on the orchestra, the program, and on the LA music scene.

It's been 20 years...what took so long?

We were in San Francisco around 16 years ago? The BSO doesn't tour domestically that much. When the symphony tours, they usually go to Asia and Europe. The Boston Pops tours more domestically and [the BSO] has been on the West Coast twice now in 20 years and we've had over 1300 concerts at Carnegie, and we've had a relationship with them for over 120 years so we tend to go there and tend to not play on the West Coast. Maybe with all the synergy in LA at this moment we should consider that. It'll be a real treat to come here to the new Disney Hall.

Seems like a lot of major things have happened to the BSO recently...
Seji Ozawa and [James] Levine, for obvious health reasons, has left us and is not physically able to conduct, so we're bringing one of our assistant conductors Ludovic Morlot.

It's impressive how the BSO has almost doubled the operation budget during your tenure, given the state of the economy.
Financially speaking, the two biggest budget orchestras are LA and Boston. LA has the Hollywood Bowl, Boston has Tanglewood, but we were not immune from the recession. We have an 85 million dollar operating budget, roughly 500 acres and 80 structures. The orchestra is 133 years old, and things have changed in the last 20 years but it continues to grow and Boston is a city that reflects their community and has a rich tradition.

When you define Boston...well when you define LA the dominant industry is entertainment. There is certainly all the business activity in Boston, and beyond the domestic sports teams, you think of education and culture. There are 300,000 students in Boston with Harvard, MIT, Boston University, BC, Tufts, Wellesley, Northeastern, Suffolk, Emerson...and then you have one of the major museums the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony/Boston Pops. We do a concert on the 4th of July and half a million people show up and it airs on CBS. We're a central part of the marathon, we're a focus of that. We work very hard, certainly look at LA recently, part of what defines this city is the Hollywood Bowl and the Disney Hall. [Boston] is an older city, and it's part of our thinking for a long time.

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And how has the orchestra changed (if at all) since the departure of James Levine?
The orchestra has a great French tradition (though Koussevitzky was Russian) but we tour and we also have a tradition of commissions. The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Prokofiev's 4th Symphony, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, were all premiered by the orchestra. Copland, Corigliano, and Harbison [the symphony on the program was premiered by the BSO] among others have composed works for us. It's still an orchestra that attracts quite a few contemporary composers, and we're fortunate enough to have an educated audience so we're a little more contemporary.

What, logistically speaking, happens when your orchestra goes on tour? In regards to planes and travel.
We actually have two orchestras touring (Pops in Chicago and Symphony in the West Coast), a production staff, operation staff, and we travel with 120+ people, so there's flight, cargo, 14-15 tons of equipment. When we go to New York we truck everything but we'll fly everything when we cross the country. The traveling secretary is the person that handles all the logistics and makes sure the hotels are booked and working with the hotels and airlines (I used to do that 20 years ago and it was quite complicated).

And how did this collaboration with Gil Shaham (performing the Brahms Violin Concerto on Saturday) come about?

Gil's a wonderful friend and comes out to Tanglewood [from NYC] every summer so we've known him for a decade and certainly after talking to Deborah Borda [current LA Phil President] she told us that he was very highly respected in LA and he was gracious enough to come join us.

As someone who works primarily in and with the East Coast Classical music scene, what have you heard or noticed about the Classical music scene in the West Coast or its musicians?
You can actually fly to London faster than you can fly to LA, so part of why you ask why it's been 20 years, part of it is because we're about as far away from LA on the East Coast as possible, and we do share one important personality (John Williams) who has been active with the orchestra for about 30 years now (Laureate Conductor) and we recorded a few soundtracks and he spends a good part of the summer at Tanglewood. Very different culture, very different cities.

Also, Sean Newhouse (former conductor of YMF's Debut Orchestra) joined the BSO as an assistant conductor, correct?
Yes, he was a Fellow at Tanglewood as was Ludovic Morlot and we have the most talented (past conductors include Bernstein, Abbado, Mehta, Dutoit, Maazel) come through Tanglewood and [Newhouse] came there and won the audition and Levine invited him.

[Newhouse made his debut with the orchestra, taking over for an ailing Levine two hours before a performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony]...seems like you always hear stories about up-and-coming conductors taking the place of an ailing conductor to perform Mahler...
Look at [Leonard] Bernstein! He was a kid and Bruno Walter [NY Phil conductor at the time] and all of a sudden. Front page of the New York Times. Everyone likes that story. It's not just in this field it's in Broadway, theatre, or pro football. Sometimes they are pretty good.

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Does the orchestra have any recreational or sight-seeing plans in LA? I think a group of board members and trustees who have more time than us are going to Sony Studios, thanks to John Williams. There are a lot of films shot on location in Boston but not really any studios. Maybe see an art collection or two. They have more time than the players, who are in Palm Springs for a performance. We go back to Boston on Sunday.

The BSO has a fairly large web presence (for an orchestra). Has that helped at all?

Sure. We're in a transition right now, we have about 8 million households that access bso.org any given year...now the media is dominated by Google and Apple and Amazon and so we've taken destiny in our own hands...and now we do a lot of media stuff in house. E-commerce wise we've done about 60 million dollars of commerce selling tickets, merchandise, recordings. And now, the fastest growing segment of internet users is grandparents that want to connect and we're there for them as well. Especially in the summer, about 20% of our audience is actually from Boston. More people come in from all over the East Coast...and likewise for the pops which has a huge tourist draw so the online presence is very important for people to purchase tickets.

And what's next?

We have 38 concerts in 50 days and one thing different about the BSO (and LA is probably the closest model) is with Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, and Tanglewood, there is no down season. There are 250-260 concerts every year in only 365 days and this year is Tanglewood's 75th Anniversary Season...75 concerts in 75 days. Some are big blockbusters like Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman with 14-15,000 people or some are student concerts like Beethoven quartets with only 400 people, but every night something is going on at Tanglewood.