This was not the kind of retirement year Boston Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Mark Volpe expected. That said, after decades spent leading the cultural institution, he adjusted along with the organization.
They canceled their Asian tour, unable to play in Hong Kong as planned, and played and recorded beautiful music for empty rooms while hundreds of thousands of people all over the world watched and listened from computer screens.
“In a way, after, you know, investing 30 years in the business and 23 years here in Boston, I'm glad I was here for this, you know, as painful as it was,” he said. “You know, if you care deeply about the institution, you want to be there in crisis.”
My focus has been getting Tanglewood in a state where we can resume in a safe way and in a way that health matters are paramount.Mark Volpe
And he wasn’t about to leave without seeing the orchestra back onstage before a live audience.
“My focus has been getting Tanglewood in a state where we can resume in a safe way and in a way that health matters are paramount,” he said.
The BSO will be returning to its Lenox venue for a six-week run, July 9 through Aug. 16. This is 50% of the Tanglewood Music Festival’s usual season and a step forward in post-pandemic recovery. Leadership has been working on a reopening strategy since November.
The Tanglewood venues will be among the first in the region to reopen this summer. The festival will also mark the orchestra's official return to performances before a live audience since the pandemic forced a 16-month hiatus starting in March of 2020.
On Monday, the state will allow venues such as Tanglewood to operate at 12% capacity, with gathering limits of 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors. Among the many measures in place to reinforce physical distancing protocols, all performances will be limited to no more than 80 minutes with no intermissions. They will all be held at the open-air Koussevitzky Music Shed at a reduced capacity with similar capacity restrictions applied to lawn attendance.
The BSO invested more than $1.1 million in COVID-related facilities improvements at Tanglewood, including expanded crowd management staffing and logistics, and other elements. Though reopening Tanglewood will allow audiences to return, it will also add to the BSO’s financial challenges, given the reduced ticket revenue and increased cost to maintain a safe campus environment.
We will come out of this pandemic, from a financial context and hopefully an artistic context, better than any orchestra in America.Mark Volpe
The current operating budget is $57.7 million, a massive decrease from its pre-COVID operating budget for the 2019-20 season of $103 million.
The BSO has lost about $51.5 million in revenue.
“We normally raise roughly $40 million a year. We raised $20 million on top of that. That money is to offset many of the losses that were occurring from ticket sales,” Volpe said. “That was simultaneous with going to the players...they were great partners in this. We have a three year understanding with them asking for significant concessions. We will come out of this pandemic, from a financial context and hopefully an artistic context, better than any orchestra in America.”
The BSO developed its reopening plan with 9 Foundations, a company founded by Dr. Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and comprised of experts in the field of exposure and risk reduction in buildings.
“We all know the playbook. There's no one strategy in and of itself,” Allen said. “You layer enough defenses and you can get to a place where you drive down risk to manageable levels, to minimal levels.”
Occupational and health and safety experts call this the “Hierarchy of Controls,” so universal mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and COVID-19 ventilation and filtration standards, among other measures will be employed at Tanglewood.
We met with people in concessions, in the box office and back of the house, so we've been really thoughtful in the approach...Dr. Joseph G. Allen
“We've engaged all of the stakeholders and of course, working with the senior leadership there,” Allen said. “But also we met with the performers. I personally walked through Symphony Hall. I walked all the buildings and the site at Tanglewood. We met with people in concessions, in the box office and back of the house, so we've been really thoughtful in the approach and feel confident being able to have performances there this year when all controls are in place.”
The live performance schedule will be accompanied by select weekly live video performance streams, available throughout the summer on the orchestra’s online streaming portal, BSO NOW. If the CDC or the state government recommend more stringent guidelines, the BSO will modify its plans in consultation with its advisory team.
“One of the great ironies is we're reaching millions of people,” Volpe said. “We're reaching more people than we've ever reached. I mean, the business model doesn't work because we've had to forgo $51 million in ticket sales. But we have people in 80 plus countries watching our content virtually every week on six continents, every continent but Antarctica.”
In July, for the first time in years, Volpe will go to Tanglewood as a civilian, he said.
“I can't imagine the emotionalism of that first moment with an audience,” he said. “I want to experience that.”