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On the Road Again

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Why do symphony orchestras go on tour? Concert tours are difficult to finance and a Herculean task logistically. But many world-class orchestras keep doing them. Not for the money though.

It only lasted a few hours, but it found its way into the history books. One of the first concert tours was just a short haul affair (between Whitehall and Chelsea) and took place on water (on the Thames), with the target audience seated on an armchair on the royal barge and the 50-strong orchestra playing on a boat alongside. In short, King George I was so captivated by Handel's "Water Music" that he had it repeated at least three times. For the musicians it meant playing non-stop on an unstable surface. But the success was worth the effort. According to chroniclers of the time, the Thames was completely covered with spectators on boats of all kinds. Many an orchestra member may well have gone on to tell his grandchildren of that legendary day of July 17, 1717.

Actually an Imposition

What does this story reveal? That concert tours are something of an imposition: They are not only hard work, they are also an organizational, logistical, and financial challenge. This still applies today, even with musicians traveling by plane or on a comfortable tour bus. The key ingredients – stress, time pressure and unfamiliar acoustics – remain the same. And yet orchestras keep going on tour, and not just since air travel has been opened up to the mass market. As early as 1882, the New York Philharmonic (NYP) traveled to the Midwest under Leopold Damrosch. Other world-class orchestras such as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) or the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (TOZ) have regularly traveled abroad since the 1960s.

When such an orchestra goes on tour, a lot of material has to be transported. For the 145 people traveling (musicians, managers, technical personnel), the New York Philharmonic reckons on 104 cubic meters of freight, including 140 instrument cases and wardrobe trunks, and around 200 pieces of luggage. In the case of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the 100 musicians, management, and technical staff are accompanied by a tour doctor. And seven tons of instruments and equipment. On its 2014 China tour, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was on the road with 102 musicians, and 14 administrative staff and technicians. The instruments worth 4.5 million dollars were packed into 63 boxes. They flew in their own plane.

Traveling at a Pleasant Temperature of 23 Degrees Celsius

Anyone who plays an instrument – without necessarily being world-class – knows how unforgiving they can be, and not only when roughly handled. They have to contend with fluctuations in temperature, air pressure, and humidity. The instruments are carefully packed; for example the SSO's harp is strapped into its case with a special seatbelt. For their part, the TOZ's instruments travel in an air-conditioned truck at a constant 23 degrees Celsius. And, with all orchestras, the precious Stradivariuses and Guarneris are never out of sight.

Europe, the Epicenter of Classical Music

On average, the preparations for a foreign tour take between three and four years. With the TOZ, at least five people are involved in this, with the NYP up to 15. All three orchestras agree that a tour should last no more than three weeks these days. Michaela Braun, the TOZ's Head of Marketing and Communications, says: "Often, residencies lasting between one and three days are also very interesting." These have become increasingly important over the years, she added, because it was a way of enhancing their interaction with the public. Matthew VanBesien, the NYP's President, points to the residency his orchestra will be holding at London's Barbican Centre during the upcoming Europe/Spring 2015 tour: "Many of our signature projects will be featured through performances that reflect how we have embraced the 21st century." Of course, the SSO, which, as one of the leading orchestras in the Asia-Pacific region, has focused its concerts on China and has already completed several tours there, cannot go on tour to Europe for just three days at a time. But for the SSO's Managing Director Rory Jeffes, going to Europe is a must: "Europe – as the world epicenter for classical and orchestral music – is still very important to us. In order to be seen as a world-class orchestra it is important that we maintain a presence in that region."

Transcending Cultural Differences with Music

Where an orchestra travels to depends on many factors. For example, the TOZ has built up a loyal following in Japan over many years, while, since its first tour there in 2009, the SSO has focused particularly on China, with its growing appetite for classical Western music. Alongside nurturing its own reputation, an orchestra can also be motivated by the desire to be a cultural ambassador for its country of origin. In 1959, under Leonard Bernstein, the NYP traveled to the Soviet Union, and more recently the orchestra made its debut in Pyongyang in 2008 and Hanoi in 2009. For VanBesien, such concerts are also an opportunity to show "that music can transcend cultural differences by speaking directly to the human heart." Another way of appealing to local audiences is through the choice of music. Of course, a classical orchestra should play a classical repertoire, but not only. The SSO aims to promote a new musical tradition that links the Western classical heritage with the rich Chinese musical tradition. That is why the orchestra commissioned the renowned Chinese composer Zhao Jiping in 2012 to write a concerto for the traditional Chinese pipa and orchestra. Because, according to Rory Jeffes, "touring is not just about playing concerts and leaving. It's a genuine two-way cultural exchange."

However stressful touring may be, it strengthens cohesion within the team, drives it to achieve outstanding results under not always ideal circumstances, and it is good for an orchestra's reputation and global status. And even though concert tours are not necessarily inscribed in the annals of classical music any longer, they surely still include plenty of memorable "trips on the Thames."