What really went down at the Boston Symphony

What really went down at the Boston Symphony


norman lebrecht

December 18, 2022

Since neither national nor local media have done anything to discover the causes behind the beheading of the Boston Symphony, we have made a few calls across the ocean to a number of insiders and can offer the following narrative.

Gail Samuel was a prodigiously competent COO at the LA Phil, trained in the Deborah Borda school of hard knocks and good laughs. She declined the chance to succeed Deborah, knowing the the successor must fail, and waited for a Big Five orchestra to come knocking, as Boston did when Mark Volpe retired. They were looking for a livelier, less conservative leadership. Gail was a perfect fit. BSO’s first woman in charge happened to be married to an African-American. The optics were good.

But the culture in Boston was encrusted in past practice and inflated self-esteem. The musicians did not take kindly to proposed changes or hard truths. Artistic director Anthony Fogg, a James Levine loyalist, stiffened their resistance. Music director Andris Nelsons was not open to her ideas and his bilateral tour relationship with the Leipzig Gewandhaus created further obstacles.

There were rumblings on last month’s tour of Japan (pictured). Samuel’s Aspen hire Asadour Santourian raised further hackles. Tensions reached snapping point this month. Something had to give.

Gail Samuel gave, resigning last Friday together with Satourian. She will soon land another top orchestra. But Boston will find it harder to recruit an experienced CEO. This is a blot on its very long-standing reputation for reliability.


  • Petros Linardos says:

    “The musicians did not take kindly to proposed changes or hard truths… Music director Andris Nelsons was not open to her ideas”
    What kinds of ideas did Gail Samuel bring?

    • Musici says:

      Black woman conductors

    • CarlD says:

      Exactly. In the absence of specifics, this comes off like spin from Gail or “persons close to her.”

    • Rachel says:

      Give me a break. This is surely about Fogg and Asadour not gelling especially w Asadour’s long artistic background and not doing artistic things in his new role—He also likely wasn’t quiet about how he felt about Tony. And is supporting Levine a real attribute of Fogg’s? Well she brought Asadour…they weren’t ready, It really is sad! In the end- at least She should have stayed. And if the black woman conductors as an idea —if that comment is true then GOOD ON HER! Come on Boston. Get with the times.

      • Tamino says:

        What is good about the brainwashed narrow minded racist nonsense, to appoint gigs based on ethnicity and gender? No institution anywhere in the world, built on a tradition of excellence and having such a reputation to loose, can afford such narrow minded ideological wokeness.
        I‘m positive nobody in Boston is against diversity. But not by compromising excellence.

        • John says:

          Almost every other Boston ops Christmas concerts have black people as guests etc. It’s like they’re trying so so hard to be PC and « with it » on board awake trend nonsense. How about merit and talent instead of vapid virtue signaling to mainly WASP Massachusetts audience /benefactors?
          All fo sho, then they can all wonder why sales are down and there’s waning interest ?
          The jab requirements with mask ocd didn’t help either- turned off many folks.

        • Nancy says:

          Truly, where are these black women conductors coming from? And how can we ensure that they are winning their positions through the excellence of their own work?

    • Faith Girdler says:

      I was wondering that too!

    • John says:

      Yes, I too would like to know what her ideas were. I feel we’re all supposed to recoil at the crusty old men of the BPO living in their privileged past. But every time I meet someone who wants to change or “save” classical music, they come with rather stupid, shallow gimmicks that in fact will bring classical music’s demise. I got interested in the art form in the early 80s, when I was a kid, and immediately I began hearing it was on its last legs, it needed disco beats and synthesizers to save it. Then in the 90s it was chanting monks and topless fiddlers from Singapore. In the early 2000s, a half-witted Australian pianist with a sad backstory, hot Asians playing in an electrified string quartet, and rock dinosaurs recording their “symphonies” and “etudes.” Now it’s the belief that we should let Millennials text, chat, and talk during a concert, and serve wine and beer while the orchestra is performing Mahler and Schumann. Classical websites should look like Instagram pages and Pinterest apps, and be “interactive” and “dynamic.” I can’t wait to see how robots and AI are going to be dragged into the classical world to “save” it.

      None of this has done a thing to bring anybody to classical music–or at least not for more than a single concert. I used to work at a local symphony that tried many of these things to attract Millennials, and after the first concert our attendance did indeed jump. After our *second* concert it went right back down, and has stayed roughly the same ever since. While everyone is out there “saving” classical music, classical music itself just keeps its collective head down doing the same thing it’s done for well over a century…and it’s still around. All the fads that were going to extend its life, however, are long dead. Now you can get those chanting monk and electric violin CDs in used bookstores for 99¢, and there are tons of them, with “LIKE NEW!” on the case.

      • Old Man in the Midwest says:

        But I love the Chanting Monks.

        Chant is not dead.

        It’s live and spectacular.

      • Nancy says:

        Completely agree. These administrators are so scared about filling seats that they forget that it’s about the art. If they just take out the fads, we will be left with those who truly appreciate classical music as it was meant to be enjoyed!

    • Sara K. says:

      bring back Ronnie Feldman–excellent conductor, has integrity, class, and no bs.

  • music lover says:

    Storm in a teapot…”Music director Andris Nelsons was not open to her ideas”…Did he,or Mrs,Samuel talk to you?
    Unless so,everything here belongs to the realm of speculation. Furthermore,it doesn´t afflict the fantastic qualities of the BSO a bit. Musically, the COO doesn´t effect anything,

  • Bedrich Sourcream says:

    A blot? Hardly. This is the top orchestra and biggest operation in the nation, if not the world. Definitely not a place for radical change.

    • Tamino says:

      You haven‘t been much outside of Massachussets lately, have you? It‘s a very fine orchestra with a mighty endowment, certainly, but curb the hyperbole. Or were you joking?

      • Solange says:

        If all ya drive is an ok car or live in an ok place your whole life, then you have really have nothing in comparison. That’s all ya know. The fish doesn’t know it’s in water syndrome. What’s water? Huh?. what?

  • Delilah says:

    Maybe they can hire Cressida Pollack or Stuart Murphy!

  • phf655 says:

    The Boston Symphony has an endowment worth in the neighborhood of $500 million. I imagine there are many serious professionals who would be happy to work with that kind of backing. In addition, a future president would not be expected to bend themselves into a pretzel trying to create woke programming, or trying to woo ‘diverse’ audiences, who, despite herculean, though misguided, efforts elsewhere, have not materialized in significant numbers. In addition, the president of the BSO becomes the de facto custodian of the finest concert hall in North America, Symphony Hall (IMAO, the finest in the world).

    • Bone says:

      In summary, you contend that the hiring of a woke administrator who brought a woke DEI administrator with her wound up getting cancelled for being too woke?
      If only this were the start of a backlash against the leftists…

      • Jane says:

        The woke leftists scoff at Beethoven and tradition and force the rest of us to put up with pops concerts and outreach. We need music education!

  • Chicagorat says:

    Maybe the explanation can be summarized in one word: ambition. Maybe the BSO still has some ambition and is not OK with becoming a Tier 2 or Tier 3 orchestra. They want to tour in London and Japan, not in Oklahoma. They want ideas and results. Unlike other American orchestras who have fallen off a cliff into desperate obscurity. Unlike, as a random example, the Chicago Symphony.

    Based on my reading of the annual reports, in the last fiscal year the CSO sold 210,227 tickets, an absolutely terrifying 40% drop (!!) against the 347,502 tickets sold in the 2017/2018 season. In spite of revenue per ticket increasing by an outrageous 16%, the CSO total ticket revenue still dropped down to $16.31M, a spine-chilling 30% (!!!) drop from the $23.28M in ticket revenue of 2017/2018.

    Yet Alexander and Muti are still around in Chicago. All happy, and preparing for the Oklahoma tour. They are not threatened by an activist Board who wants the best for their institution.

    Ah, Chicago. The city where something does not necessarily have to give (except ticket sales).

    • robinson crusoe says:

      The CSO has not fallen into obscurity. They have regained notoriety recently, it would appear, by messing up their brass principal chairs.

    • SlippedChat says:

      Chicagorat, you seem to have wandered into the wrong thread. This one is supposed to be about Boston.

      Not everything that happens in the orchestral world is fodder for extraneous comments about the Chicago Symphony and/or Muti.

    • Hugo Preuß says:

      Glad to see (though not surprised to see) that the problems in Boston are really about Muti. As is everything else in the world.

    • Old Guy says:

      CR… I think you have officially morphed from “guy with a grudge” to “sad caricature of yourself.” Hope you find some peace.

    • TubaMinimum says:

      Pretty much every major symphony orchestra has seen a significant post-pandemic dip in attendance. Maybe a lot of the audience is particularly cautious about large gatherings, maybe unfortunately a decent portion of that subscriber base passed away in the last few years, maybe people got out of the habit of attending concerts and it’s harder than we think to get them to come back. Broadway and movie theaters are similarly hurting. So it’s important to view the BSO’s sales in light of those national trends, but there is no doubt there is a fair amount of panic about sales in Boston and elsewhere.

      There might not be a lot of easy answers. Some see it as a need to lean into the warhorses we know people want to see, others see it as evidence we need to reach new audiences. But it’s definitely raising the temperature in a lot of orchestra board rooms, and might exacerbate disagreements on tactics and direction quite a bit.

      • Shelby Nugent says:

        Or maybe: 1. Patrons do not want to be lectured about woke joke nonsense, beat over the head with endless minority group flavor of the month virtue signaling, endless marketing pictures of said persons,
        2. Maybe some patrons are turned off by dictatorship style corona tactics at these events.
        They voted with their wallets.
        Reality is what it is. Many “leaders” have much trouble with reality bc they’re too invested in the bs.

  • drummerman says:

    Tony Fogg is VP, Artistic Planning, not “artistic director.” Don’t know if he’s a Levine “loyalist” but he has been working there since 1994, ten years before Levine began as music director. And since Levine in 2011, why would that have any bearing on Mr. Fogg’s current work with Gail Samuel?

    You say she was hired because they were “looking for a livelier, less conservative leadership.” What, exactly were her ideas and what was “the hard truth?”

    No matter what one does or does not think about Ms. Samuel, I find it to be in very poor taste for you to mention her husband’s race.

    • Sam says:

      Who cares what Fogg’s title is? It’s irrelevant to this discussion.

      Her husband’s race is relevant insofar as it identifies her as an openminded person, not stuck in the old ways (as most major orchestras are these days).

      • Tamino says:

        I don‘t think in the 21st century bein married interracially qualifies you automatically as being open minded in a broader sense. It‘s actually quite narrow minded to suggest that.

    • John says:

      Agreed with all of that.

    • Melissa says:

      Her husband is absolutely relevant because it’s a diversity hire for the awake trend. Perceptions are everything.

  • CA says:

    I know of no top orchestra in the USA that has a ceo opening. Plenty of small orchestras are looking, as perpetually they are.

  • Riccardo says:

    Honestly, ANY ideas would be welcomed in Boston now. But clearly the holders of the purse strings want endless Beethoven and Mozart with the occasional tokenism (while the musicians are visibly annoyed). Boston is strange. It fancies itself a progressive place but just look at their programming. Zzzzzz

    • Sam says:

      Agreed, I haven’t seen much out of Boston in my lifetime that really got me excited, despite representing one of America’s most progressive and educated big cities. Their new music programming has always been latched to northeastern Ivy League academics. I’ve seen little in the way of bold community initiatives of the kind that L.A. does. About the best thing they have going for them are a great hall and a summer home at Tanglewood.

      I wouldn’t blame Samuel for leaving if these are the entrenched forces she faces.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Nonsense. It’s a great orchestra that plays in a great hall. The music will continue.

  • Echo says:

    She had a few simplistic ideas – they were fine, who would object to more people in the hall, or fostering diversity? Everyone was onboard there. The problem was she seemed to be shockingly, arrogantly uninterested in the music itself, and from this every problem flowed. Anyone in management with any competence departed or was about to leave; the organization was gutted and replacements were nepotistic incompetents.

    • John says:

      I’ve never understood this “fostering diversity” mantra. Shouldn’t be we fostering quality, and if it brings diversity great, but that’s a means. With the wokies, it has become the end. Which makes me wonder why we don’t have four-foot-tall white guys on NBA teams. They’d lose every game…but it’s *fostering diversity.* I wonder how much our seven-foot-tall star players would welcome them.

      • Tamino says:

        Agreed. We should foster diversity though, BUT, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. A world class Symphony Orchestra is not the place to foster diversity as a primary objective. That has to happen at the bottom of the musical education chain.
        An orchestra like the BSO only is asked to reap the fruits of what was sown earlier, with an open mind, but always with excellence and quality as primary objectives.

        • Melissa says:

          Foster talent and merit. Not “diversity” theatre. Much of the “diversity” are white washed folks who although phenotypically a oriental, black, mexican, etc., but were born in the US, do not speak their racial/ethnic language and are there to tick a diversity box for money gathering. We gather together for money gathering-that’s the motto of most US orchestras.

    • Jobim75 says:

      Seems that ideology prevailed over ideas with this nomination…..can work in most US places, not in Boston…. Not bad news….

  • Fenway says:

    Bso is a dinosaur, a warhorse. About as exciting as organizing your sock drawer. Conductor that has nose in score, dull programming. The musicians mail it in most of the time. No wonder these people left.

  • Rich Jamiesen says:

    She followed a legend . Hard to do and it didn’t work out. Musicians and conductors have extremely loyalty and were very happy with the direction the orchestra previous to her appointment.

  • Nick2 says:

    Either a Board yet again not doing its due diligence or being totally at odds with its artistic direction.

  • Violist says:

    Wasn’t Mark Volpe a good leader for the BSO? I’m not in that orchestra, but I thought that he and Tony Fogg are generally looked upon as really good leaders.
    Sounds like she just couldn’t read the room and didn’t understand Boston. What works in LA won’t work just anywhere. Plus, Asadourian? Seems also like a wrong fit.
    What is it about this situation makes us think it’ll be hard to get someone to take over the position? It’s a premiere gig with one of the only fiscally healthy orchestras in the country. They have Tanglewood. They own so much real estate in downtown Boston. They have one of America’s greatest halls. They have the pops. The CEO just has to not mess it up!!! That’s all!

  • Saison says:

    So obviously written by one who hasn’t been to the BSO in a decade.
    “Crusty old Boston “is dead.

    • Violist says:

      Tell me more! You are 100% right. I grew up there and also lived there as an adult, but it has been, not kidding, 9 years since I lived there

  • Tamino says:

    „Artistic director Anthony Fogg, a James Levine loyalist, …“
    What‘s the relevance of this? And what does it even mean?

  • JJC says:

    Boston is entitled to the culture that it wants and embraces. A new tea party? Good!

  • Melissa says:

    Maybe more woke joke nonsense. Boston is predominately WASP. There not into token « diversity » American theatre.

    • mem says:

      Boston is neither White, nor Anglo, nor Saxon, nor Protestant.

      Try again.

      • Melissa says:

        It is WASP ville. Towns are overwhelmingly Anglosaxons. Pandering to the woke joke trend will likely be the mail in coffin for dwindling classical musak support.

        Live there for decades. The racism is unreal but real, and many are self proclaimed —progessives. Lol.
        Tokenism is rampant and the « diversity » American theatre is in the hospitals and unis. And now in their orchestra. Not a good look. Especially post mask and show me your shot papers fiascos.

        • MWnyc says:

          Irish-Americans are neither Anglo-Saxon nor, in the main, Protestant. Neither are Italian-Americans.

          Not to say that there’s no racism there (the 1970s school busing riots are not forgotten), but mem is right that, even though Boston’s old aristocracy may be WASP, the city is not.

          Besides Irish- and Italian-Americans, there are plenty of Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans (that last group including the mayor) in and around Boston, too.

          • Melissa says:

            Italians are not Anglo, they’re continental Europeans. The main predominate group in Mass is WASP. Born and bred. There some Catholics-but that’s people from Southie, and then there’s Northend -Italian -they’re not a white -like Jews (the race) they’re from Continental Europe.
            The token Asians from Formisa live in Lexington, Wellesley, —affluent towns. Eastie includes Cambodians, Vietnamese , and poor Cantonese -Chinese people.
            Mexicans? Maybe at Suffolk Downs race track? And black persons? They got chased out of many places.
            Boston /Mass in general is very racist and highly segregated regardless of pc or marketing. If they keep up the over awoke joke hipster thing they’ll be the Boston Flops

          • Trumpette Thom says:

            Italians are not white. They’re continental European like Aschenazi Jews. Boston has always been and Massachusett in general pretty Anglo saon except for the irish catholics.

    • david moran says:

      how come so many of these comments are so ignorant?

  • CSOA Insider says:

    Maybe Deborah Borda and Gail Samuel could reconstitute their strong, anti-patriarchal partnership in Chicago, where a new era is at hand.

    One can always dream, and rumors are floating at least in connection with the first name.

  • mem says:

    At the level of the Big Five, being a COO does not make one qualify to be CEO. Very different skill sets. The success of the CEO doesn’t just rub off on the COO like some magic dust.

    Smart boards hire laterally, a CEO with a proven track record as such from another organization. Borda was a lateral hire from NY to LA, and then back to NY from LA. There is no runway for takeoff, the captain has to pilot a plane already flying high in the sky.

    • Robert Levine says:

      Borda was essentially a COO (to Peter Pastreich’s CEO) when she got her first CEO job. Working under a great CEO is a perfectly fine place to move up to a CEO position. That doesn’t mean she was a good fit for the BSO; quite possibly she wasn’t. But that she was qualified seems very likely indeed.

    • Monty Earleman says:

      Big 5??? Who you leaving out? LA has eclipsed most of ’em-

  • Skeeter says:

    Boycott the symphony. Send it into the past.

    • Tamino says:

      Yes, more HipHop and TikTok please!!! Hooray to the future? Where can I donate my brain, I will not need it anymore, right?

  • Adam says:

    “She will soon land another top orchestra.”

    Lol. Whut?

    She was outmaneuvered by Chad Smith for the top job at LA (after they both drove out Simon Woods.) She didn’t leave LA of her own accord. She barely lasted 18 months in Boston. Where exactly do you think she’s going to go? Who will have her?

    She died on the hill of her friend (and godfather of her child) Asadour Santourian who turned Tanglewood into a mess. It wasn’t just the orchestra that was upset. You missed the fact he was being investigated and resigned before the results came out because they were not going to be in his favor.

    Yes, this doesn’t look good for Boston, but it’s much more problematic for her and Asadour’s careers.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      The LA statements are incorrect. I heard nothing of any Boston investigation into Santourian, but will ask.

    • Melissa says:

      Who would anyone with a working brain stem hire the train wrecks—maybe a desperate community program, short term gig at some big 10, or some elitist, who y’a know, summer program for entitled kids suite in some rich town?!

      The PR team can take lotsa pictures of the husbands and them together showing how …. »diverse » and awake they are….
      The US is like gong show from 70s. Good grief.

  • Freddie Kramer says:

    Under Gail Samuels leadership, despite the BSO having an endowment in excess of 470 million dollars – the staff was slashed, community programs were eliminated and morale was at its lowest. Diversity programming was mediocre at best and as a result, audience attendance was an embarrassment. Good riddens!

  • NotToneDeaf says:

    What goes around . . . . Her treatment of Woods in LA was conniving and underhanded and should have immediately eliminated her from Boston consideration. She is a decent #2 – good with numbers and a good hatchet woman – But she has no artistic sensibility and her lack of judgement and common sense was made evident in her hiring of Santourian. The entire industry knew it was a mistake and that it would end in disaster.

    • Sara K. says:

      Right on. What’s not mentioned in this tabloid piece above, is the amount of many long term staff that left during feeble nonsense at the organization. She is a #2 exactly…

  • Andrew Clark says:

    Just an observation. How come every time an issue is brought up about US orchestras trolls pile on about Riccardo Muti? Really people, Muti and Chicago have NOTHING to do with this one. Boston has its own issues outside of Muti’s influence to deal with.

  • Silence Dogood says:

    Failing to mention the abrupt firing and departure of many longtime staff during her tenure.
    Labeling Tony Fogg as simply a “Levine loyalist,” minimizing his reputation as one of the most respected orchestra leaders in the business for over three decades (by musicians and colleagues alike).
    Getting the story entirely wrong (shocking…).
    You are a blot on the classical music industry, and have been for decades.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    “The musicians did not take kindly to proposed changes or hard truths” . . . that’s because they’ve trained all their lives to play the best music there is, irrespective of perceived ‘baggage’ in either direction. Let them play.

  • All about the bass says:

    2021 “This is a really good call for Boston.”

    Ouch. Not a good look with that toxic optimism.