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Boston Symphony in Transition - 2002-03-28

Last September's terror attacks and the economic slowdown have left many American arts groups suffering financially. But the 121-year-old Boston Symphony Orchestra is in good shape because of something that many financial advisers suggest - diversification.

On the Green Line of the Boston subway, there is a stop that simply says "Symphony." Up the stairs from the stop is one of the city's great landmarks: Symphony Hall, home of the Boston Symphony and Pops orchestras.

Their managing director, Mark Volpe, said the classical ensembles remain strong icons in Boston on par with its sports teams. "We outdrew everybody but the Red Sox in town," he said. "We outdrew the Celtics [and] the hockey team, the Bruins. You can't imagine Boston without the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops."

Mr. Volpe said the strength of the Boston Symphony and Pops orchestras is its diverse audience - the Symphony for more serious concert-goers and the Pops for more casual audiences. And the ensembles tour extensively beyond their home city of Boston, and spend much of the summer in the western Massachusetts setting known as "Tanglewood."

Mr. Volpe said, "We're the one big American orchestra that has the constituency in terms of ticket sales beyond the local market. The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the great orchestras of the world, but they basically sell to Cleveland. We have a presence in Boston, an ongoing series in New York. And there's Tanglewood; 60 per cent of the audience at Tanglewood is from beyond New England. You see big European tour groups, big Asian tour groups coming in. The other [ensemble] we have is the Boston Pops; we sell about 60 per cent of the tickets to groups. They come in for their college reunions. When you're talking about the New York Philharmonic, you're talking about a great brand - [Leonard] Bernstein's orchestra, [Gustav] Mahler's orchestra. But it's one brand. They don't even own their own hall. But what we have here is three distinct brands: the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops and Tanglewood. Each has distinct audiences and distinct funding profiles in terms of donors. We're blessed with having the largest endowment and budget because of our reach."

Mark Volpe said another advantage the Boston orchestras have is the New England city's large number of college students - furnishing a continuing supply of educated audiences interested in classical music. He said, "The reality is that we're blessed per capita in the city with the largest concentration of young people, because of the universities. Our average audience age is considerably younger than the norm. It varies from night to night. My sense is that there's an element in the audience that's conservative. There's an element that's incredibly adventuresome. And there are a lot of people in between."

Because of their extensive touring schedules, the attacks of 9/11 have forced the Boston Symphony and Pops to reevaluate its travel procedures, as Mr. Volpe explains, "We did, for the first time ever, charter [an airplane] for the whole tour. We got a plane so you can control as much as you can control; every passenger is one of our people. The other thing we do is [when] we go to New York with the Boston Symphony, we go by train. It's not that the orchestra is afraid to fly. It's the hassle; when you're travelling with 150 people and you get to the airport two hours in advance, and you're going from Boston to New York, you may as well take the train. By the time you spend an hour-and-a-half in the airports and an hour in the air, it's changed how we think about [travel].

In addition to concerns about the orchestra's finances, Boston Symphony officials were faced with choosing a new music director after Seiji Ozawa announced he would end his 29-year tenure with the orchestra later this year. James Levine, who currently leads New York's Metropolitan Opera orchestra, was selected to replace Mr. Ozawa.

Managing director Volpe says they have contrasting conducting styles. "Seiji," he said, "is one of the most beautiful conductors to watch. He's poetry in motion. Jim [Levine] doesn't do that. Jim basically does all the work in the rehearsals and the performance is all about 'releasing' the music. And he stays out of the way in performance. All hell could be breaking loose and he's just doing this. It's not good to do physical motions on the radio, but it's a very different approach. It's my hope that Seiji's legacy will live on. After 29 years, he's been here longer than even [Serge] Koussevitzky. Certainly, Jim becomes our music director, but keeps Seiji involved in the family, especially at Tanglewood."

The Boston Symphony's newly-appointed director, James Levine, will share his conducting time with the Metropolitan Opera. But Boston's Mark Volpe said he is confident that Maestro Levine will devote his full attention to the Boston Symphony as well. "The Met is very much a part of Jim and Jim is part of the Met," he said. "Our thought is that Jim will conduct at least half of our concerts here in Boston and will have a significant presence in the summer at Tanglewood. This is a guy who commits and a guy who has more energy than anybody I've ever seen. And he's not going to do anything else."

Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony and Pops orchestras, which have remained financially strong during a time of transition.