Breakfast with The Eagle: A rare breakfast out with Mark Volpe, Boston Symphony Orchestra's managing director
Explaining his order of the Texas-style French toast, he chuckled: "I like French toast. Next question."
"I typically don't eat breakfast, but when I do, I'm inspired to make it interesting," he added, noting that he often eats post-concert dinners with artists, "so I'm eating already at midnight, many times, and after a while, breakfast is less necessary and less interesting."
He chose the 1773 Stockbridge inn because of "many fond memories sitting here with Jack and Jane," the Fitzpatricks, who rescued the venerable property in 1968 from potential demolition. "They were incredibly welcoming when I arrived 20 years ago."
Thick slabs of French toast arrived in short order, along with a colorful dish of local berries. Savoring each bite, Volpe saluted the late Fitzpatricks as great benefactors, notably for the 1993 construction of Ozawa Hall, "which transformed Tanglewood."
"I have the most tenure of anybody running a major orchestra in the U.S.," he said with justifiable pride. His team of top administrators also has remained in place since 1997.
"This is a destination orchestra," the Minneapolis native said. "Once you get here, there's no place else to go as a musician and that's true of the staff as well."
His career trajectory seemed pre-destined. His father, Clement, now 87, was a trumpeter with the Minnesota Orchestra for 43 years. His mother, Ephie, 86, taught learning-disabled youngsters. Volpe studied trumpet until he switched to clarinet when he was 10.
Pursuing a music career wasn't just natural, "it was obligatory," he said, half-joking. "I grew up backstage, hanging out with the players."
Having earned a degree in clarinet performance from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in 1979, Volpe did graduate work at the Indiana University School of Music, but then came an audition at a major West Coast orchestra.
After he performed a designated passage from Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony for "not even 45 seconds, they said, `Next!' So I turned the page and started playing Brahms, and they said, `No, next person.' "
Pivoting swiftly, Volpe entered the University of Minnesota Law School, obtaining his degree cum laude in 1983.
After briefly considering a career in politics, he landed at the Baltimore Symphony as assistant to the executive director and soon, general manager. In retrospect, he said as he sampled the mixed berries, "I had no business having that job; you don't give a job to someone who's never run anything in his life, much less a top-15 orchestra."
While there, he met his wife-to-be, Martha, having hired her away from the Boston Symphony, where she had been Music Director Seiji Ozawa's assistant, to serve as artistic administrator.
After a five-year stint, Volpe's next stop was vice president and general manager of the Minnesota Orchestra, "in other words, my dad's boss. The joke was, every time he'd see me, he'd ask for a raise."
Two years later, he was off to head the Detroit Symphony, where he presided over a $250 million urban redevelopment project surrounding the orchestra hall.
"I was committed there," he said. "One day, about seven years later, the phone rang and it was Yo-Yo Ma. He had seen what I did in Detroit and he said I've got to come to Boston, but I said, `I'm not done here.' And then, Isaac Stern called."
After Volpe resisted, the great violinist and savior of Manhattan's Carnegie Hall told him, "Are you kidding? It's the Boston Symphony!"
"The clincher was, it's the BSO; it's Tanglewood," he said. "Historically, this has been the most important orchestra in America. It created the Pops genre and the summer festival, and it committed to the next generation of musicians through the Tanglewood Music Center."
His biggest initial challenge: "Great orchestra, great history, great people, but the culture was not as healthy as it should have been. I'm in a relationship business, relationships and culture."
A series of transitions from Ozawa's departure after 29 years to James Levine's abbreviated tenure as music director led to the hiring of Andris Nelsons as the youthful, dynamic music director now beginning his fourth season.
"The guy is everything I hoped he'd be, and more," Volpe said, "as a human being, as well as a conductor. That's part of what the orchestra connects with; he's a wonderful man and he's embraced the job."
Nevertheless, Volpe acknowledged, "There's a world out there, the pervasiveness of pop culture, the sports industry and the cult of celebrity. That's the challenge for anyone running any cultural institution, not just orchestras."
He takes minimal credit for the BSO's leadership in technology. "I'm an analog guy," Volpe insisted. "I don't have Facebook, Twitter, any of that. The person who led that is Kim Noltemy, the chief operating officer."
But, he conceded, "It's incredibly impactful," as he's reminded by his daughters, Francesca, 24, an aspiring actress and comedian, and Madeline, 22, a global consultant for IBM, both living in Manhattan.
Among ongoing challenges, Volpe mentioned "cutting through the noise of an ever-more cluttered marketplace, a lot more competition, how to remain relevant in a very diverse world. We certainly appreciate that various people like various types of music, and if we can add to the shoulder seasons at Tanglewood, that's all positive — it generates net income for the orchestra and it's good for the local economy."
Asked about his limited downtime, Volpe was quick with an answer: "I play tennis and golf with the guys in the orchestra and the board members. Obviously, other than my family, the orchestra is my life."
Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at email@example.com.
On the menu
What Volpe ate: Texas-style French toast, mixed berries, pot of tea
What it cost: $18.75
Where we ate: Red Lion Inn, main dining room, Main Street, Stockbridge
What he looks forward to:
"Seeing this incredible relationship between Andris [Nelsons] and the Boston Symphony continue to flourish and grow, and building the four new [year-round] pavilions on the Tanglewood campus and the programming that's going to go into them beyond the Tanglewood Music Center and the new Tanglewood Learning Institute. It will be a privilege to be involved in a project that will transform Tanglewood even further."
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