Berkshire beak-wetting

Let’s say you’re a good-hearted animal lover without a whole lot of money. You go down to the local shelter and offer to volunteer to do some work for them, and they say, sorry, in order for you to volunteer, you’ll have to make a cash gift.

Sound dumb? Well, replace “animal” with “music” and “shelter” with “Tanglewood,” and you’ll get the gist of this story from the Berkshire Eagle, which reports the Boston Symphony Orchestra telling its summer volunteers that they’ll have to pony up at least seventy-five bucks for the BSO’s Annual Fund before they’ll be allowed to work. Huh? Let me read that again. Nope, my bafflement still stands. Huh?

The BSO administration is crying poor, saying that Tanglewood loses money every year. So, of course, the people you take that out on are the ones already working for free. Oh, they’re also cracking down on the free passes that volunteers are entitled to in return for their efforts. Used to be, you’d agree to work eight hours, and you’d get a pass (that’s for a lawn seat, by the way). Now, no pass until you’ve already worked the eight hours, which kind of stinks if you’re only out there for a weekend or two. They’re also restricting the transferability of said passes.

At the informational meeting, which was held Monday at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, a BSO executive referred to the “egregious abuses” of the companion passes in past seasons, and told of one former volunteer who was surreptitiously leading friends through the gate “nine times an hour.”

I realize that most of the Tanglewood volunteers aren’t starving students—they’re retirees and vacationers looking for a good deal. And it is a pretty good deal: put on a name tag, point a few patrons in a few directions, hand out programs, and get to hear the concert for free. But, come on, they’re volunteers. The BSO may need new revenue streams, but the people who have spent years giving you free labor is probably not the best place to go looking for one, not from a morale standpoint, not from a staffing standpoint, certainly not from a PR standpoint. BSO development operations director Mia Shultz called the changes “a new definition of commitment.” It’s also an old definition of foolish.

Update (4/13): Geoff Edgers has lots more information, including a BSO assertion that Tanglewood loses $3 million every summer.


  1. I’m also amazed that Tanglewood is now losing money – when I was a fellow there in 1994-1995, it was making money for the rest of the season, enough, I was told, to subsidize the entire Tanglewood Music Center. I’d be curious what sort of management missteps led to this situation.

  2. Right, I was going to ask that. I was always under the impression that Tanglewood was a big revenue-generator for the BSO, as the Hollywood Bowl is for the LA Phil. If it too has become a “loss center,” that’s bad news for the organization, although it will take them an exceedingly long time to run through those Harvard-managed assets.

  3. A sad thanks for posting the link to this story. It is now absolutely clear to me that the Tanglewood where I spent the summers of my childhood no longer exists.

  4. Charles, Alex: I know Tanglewood has lost money the past couple of seasons, but the public excuse for that was bad weather. (To be sure, the place does seem to be getting more rainy every summer.) If they’re actually starting to <>expect<> a deficit on the summer season, that would be a big shift indeed. I think this is something I’m going to have to poke around in a little (after this semester’s juries and recitals are over, that is).

  5. The problem seems to be going around.I wonder if it is not related to the theory that Blair Tindall expressed in “Mozart in the Jungle” Said theory being that an abundance of arts funding in the 60’s and 70’s or therabouts has created a “bubble” that is beginning to break, leaving the talentless rats and weasels feeding on it in a vulnerable position.Typical of these sorts is to abuse and blame the innocent.

  6. Well, they have to pay for all those “development” consultants somehow.Professional golf tournaments, by the way, are flirting with the same shabby treatment of their legions of volunteers, insisting for instance on a donation in order to work at a parking lot all day.So I propose that elderly volunteers unite! If you have to pay, you’re not a “volunteer.” The organizations can damned well pay somebody else to do your “job” if they are that greedy.

  7. Actually, my experience with the Seattle Symphony was more bizzare than that.I was a season subscriber, contributed money, helped build Soundbridge, and had more than 1000 hours of volunteer time when they booted me for reasons or prejudices I can make no sense of.A volunteer strike sounds like a good idea.

  8. The $75 charge is most mystifying because it just wouldn’t raise that much money. How many volunteers do they have? A few hundred, tops? The charge would make virtually no difference to the bottom line (certainly not enough to offset the bad publicity). It may, however, weed out volunteers management considers freeloaders. That’s the best explanation, I’d say. Also, it’s worth noting that many other orchestras require donations from their “volunteers.”Of course, the deeper trend remains – rapturous praise for Levine’s BSO and claims that it is broadening the orchestra’s audience, etc., paralleled by a steady trickle of news stories about cutbacks and money problems.

Leave a Reply