Don’t look now but there is, finally, some hopeful news at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
More quickly than anyone expected, the BSO has announced that Gail Samuel, who resigned suddenly in December after less than two years as president and CEO, will be succeeded by Chad Smith, the current chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who will take up his post as early as this fall.
Smith has a reputation as a visionary leader in the industry; Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed recently de—scribed him as “the top orchestral manager of his generation.” It’s hard not to feel that the orchestra has finally caught a break.
Smith arrived at the Los Angeles Philharmonic over two decades ago to run its adventurous Green Umbrella new-music series, and he now oversees the entire sprawling operation, with an annual operating budget of more than $150 million, multiple venues, and a hugely ambitious educational arm that brings free instruments and instruction to Los Angeles youth. Fifteen years ago, that program — known as Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA — served 80 students. Today it serves 1,700.
But more than having a track record of managerial competence, Smith is the rare orchestral executive who also comes with genuine credibility on the artistic side, a history of substantive engagement with the art form that has allowed him to forge deep relationships over time with orchestral players, composers, and conductors.
“He is, in my experience, the best. Period,” said the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas in a recent phone interview from Zurich. Thomas, who has known Smith since they worked together decades ago at the New World Symphony, praised his understanding of, and affection for, a vast array of musical styles — “from Marin Marais to La Monte Young.” He has an appreciation, Thomas added, for composers themselves as creative figures, and for “the people who make the music, down into the deepest levels of the orchestra. I think it’s a spectacularly great thing for the Boston Symphony.”
Reached last week in Amsterdam, the composer John Adams seemed to agree. “Chad’s qualities are, first and foremost, an absolutely insatiable curiosity, combined with a very discriminating taste, wrapped up in the most robust sense of we-can-do-it, we-can-make-it-happen energy,” said Adams. “Boston is so lucky to be getting someone with his pedigree.”
Smith grew up in Gettysburg, Pa., and is no stranger to Boston, having attended Tufts University and New England Conservatory, yet it remains to be seen how his skills and experience will translate at the helm of the Boston Symphony, a tradition-proud ensemble searching for a contemporary vibrancy and relevance commensurate with its august history. The orchestra’s support in its own city runs deep but its reach rarely seems as wide as it could or should be.
Nor are there any simple plug-and-play solutions. Like so many ensembles, the BSO has tried of late to broaden and update its programming to include composers historically overlooked or relegated to the margins of the repertoire. Yet I have never seen Symphony Hall as empty as it was earlier this season for the BSO’s “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope” festival, in which the orchestra presented overlooked historic scores by composers such as Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and William Dawson, alongside newer works with a political edge by Uri Caine and Anthony Davis. The festival’s agenda, however, did not seem to reach the communities who otherwise see their own cultural history all too rarely represented on the stage of Symphony Hall, while at the same time, the unfamiliar names seemed to have kept traditional subscribers at home.
It all points to a larger central agenda item for Smith: he must lead a complete rethinking of the BSO’s relationship to the communities it seeks to serve.
And these challenges, of course, do not exist in a vacuum. The orchestra cannot become more things to more people without having the physical space to expand and diversify its offerings. Maybe, just maybe, Smith will be the visionary leader who finally galvanizes board and local support for the creation of new performance spaces on Huntington Avenue next to Symphony Hall, real estate it already owns but currently rents out to local businesses.
Smith, after all, was on the scene when the LA Philharmonic opened the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall. He witnessed firsthand how it became an instantly iconic destination, a symbol of the orchestra’s commitment to innovation, and a practical facility capable of housing all kinds of new programming.
No one is calling for the BSO to take on such ambitious new construction — it already owns one of the great halls of the world — but the orchestra simply cannot expand its offerings as widely as it must, it cannot achieve new levels of dynamism in its programming, and it cannot take on more creative innovation without smaller and more flexible spaces at its disposal. It is lovely that such spaces exist for the BSO’s use during the summer months at Tanglewood, but they are needed all season long in the heart of the city.
One question hovering above the BSO’s march into its own future is the precise role that music director Andris Nelsons will play. While still relatively young by the standards of the field, Nelsons is steeped in a more traditional European orientation. A productive and mutually complementary partnership between him and Smith will be vital.
In LA, Smith is said to have forged such a partnership with music director Gustavo Dudamel, who, like Nelsons, is an instinctual musician who conducts many types of music but is seemingly most animated by the opportunities for deep communication presented by the classics of the repertoire. In LA, Dudamel has remained the beloved public face of the orchestra, engaged in his own programs and the areas he cares passionately about (such as the orchestra’s youth development efforts), while the larger organization has expanded and diversified around him.
(In February, Dudamel announced that he too will be heading east, to take the reins of the New York Philharmonic, in 2026.)
A key aspect in such matters will be the building up of a richer counterpoint of artistic voices within the BSO. The composer Thomas Adès recently served as the BSO’s Artistic Partner but his term has run its course and he has not yet been replaced. Certainly it is time to find his successor — or to continue exploring other innovative approaches to artistic leadership.
Indeed, elsewhere on the orchestral map, new leadership formulas are being tested, models which acknowledge that, while music directors play an important role, they are only present for roughly a dozen weeks of the year. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, for instance, is now led by a series of five Artistic Partners. The London Philharmonic recently created a new position for an artistic director who, working alongside its principal conductor, can assure continuity, balance, and thoughtful curation across the length and breadth of the season. One hopes Smith, too, will continue rethinking these leadership models in his new post in Boston.
Within the broader field, another emerging area of innovation has been music’s connection to the humanities and the wider world of ideas. Only weeks ago, the Cleveland Orchestra launched an ambitious annual humanities festival, with its inaugural 10-day edition exploring the idea of the American Dream, through free concerts, opera, poetry, visual arts, and theater programming. The LA Philharmonic has also established its own Humanities Initiative. And while the BSO gestured in this direction with the creation of the Tanglewood Learning Institute, much more is possible, especially in a city whose identity is so closely linked to higher education.
As he begins his new role in the fall, Smith will no doubt be conscious of his predecessor’s experiences. Samuel also arrived as an innovator from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and while the BSO has declined to publicly explain where things went off-track, staff members in private conversation paint a portrait of a leader who sought change before obtaining buy-in or building support for her own vision.
Smith and Samuel share a mentor in New York Philharmonic president Deborah Borda, who when reached by phone in New York suggested that the BSO’s recent turmoil actually presents it with a rare opportunity. “After an organization goes through a serious upheaval, which the BSO clearly has, they emerge from that change in a different place, and in a changed place,” she said. “And that’s why I’m very positive about [Smith’s] ability to impact and truly move the BSO, in a harmonious way, into the future.”
Let’s hope recent lessons have been learned, that the BSO has finally found the leader it needs, and that he proceeds boldly. This is indeed a moment not only for renewing its mission, but for rethinking what the orchestra itself can and should be.