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At Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Displays Its Heritage and Uncertain Future

After the retirement of Mark Volpe, who served as the orchestra’s president and chief executive for 23 years until 2021 and amassed an endowment of around half a billion dollars, the Boston Symphony turned for inspiration to Gail Samuel, the chief operating officer of the daring Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she had worked for nearly three decades. Hints of a progressive Californian spirit were soon in evidence, as composers started appearing onstage at Symphony Hall in Boston to introduce their works, and the atmosphere began to feel more engaged. But Samuel lasted a mere 18 months, stepping down in January for reasons that are still not clear. Nelsons, conspicuously, offered no public comment when her departure was announced; much of the senior staff had already left in alarmingly short order and are yet to be replaced.

Filling out those ranks will be one of the tasks that falls to Chad Smith, who, in a peculiar case of déjà vu, will start work as the orchestra’s next president and chief executive in mid-September, after more than 20 years at, yes, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Smith, who for a long time was the adventurous Philharmonic’s programming guru, is hugely respected, and his hiring is cause for excitement, if some trepidation. Whether the Los Angeles model, or anything like it, can be applied to an institution that takes such pride in its past remains to be seen, although the Samuel debacle offers a clue; whatever else the Boston Symphony may be, it is not an organization known for its agility.

But this is not the only problem that Smith needs to solve. The orchestra itself, which recently signed a three-year labor agreement that will add flexibility to its concert schedule, has not had a leader on paper since 2019, when Malcolm Lowe retired as concertmaster; in practice, the matter has been unstable for longer than that. Auditions to fill a chair that, since 1920, has been occupied only by Lowe, Joseph Silverstein and Richard Burgin, reached a final stage this season, when several violinists competed for the post in concert, including Alexander Velinzon and Elita Kang, internal candidates who have admirably held the fort while the first associate concertmaster, Tamara Smirnova, has been away. Incredibly, the search remains ongoing. So, too, the slackness that can sometimes be detected in the first violins.

In addition, Elizabeth Rowe, the principal flutist whose distinctive, ever-so-slightly melancholy tone has defined the sound of the modern Boston Symphony, has announced that she will leave her position next year. She sued the orchestra in 2018 to secure pay equal to that of the oboist who sits to her left, John Ferrillo. She has drawn on the experience of that lawsuit, which was settled in 2019, to fashion a new career as a career coach and gender equality advocate. She returned from a period of leave with these concerts, and her immaculate, expressive playing was so exquisite that it brought back to mind the view of Ferrillo, as it was quoted in legal filings, that she is “the finest orchestral flutist in North America.” She should be celebrated, and will be missed.

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