When major American orchestras tour Europe, they sometimes deliver “superficial” performances. But when ensembles without “great celebrity” come to the continent, they’re dedicated and highly motivated, delivering “magnífico” results.
That’s how one Spanish music critic described the Annapolis Symphony’s debut performance in Madrid in early July, when the orchestra launched a four-city tour of the Iberian Peninsula. Nearly two-dozen Anne Arundel County business leaders and philanthropists financed the $700,000 trip, and a bus full of supporters are along for the ride, traveling the country with 73 musicians.
Edgar Herrera, the Mexican-born managing director of the orchestra, described the trip as a bonding experience for both the musicians and their fans. “It really brings the symphony together,” Herrera said, speaking by phone prior to an opening concert at Auditorio Nacional in Madrid. So far, he said, all was going well, and the musicians were inspired. “It’s like we’re going to the Olympics or the World Cup.”
Herrera arranged the trip alongside music director José-Luis Novo, who hails from the city of Valladolid north of Madrid. Given the conductor’s connections and his own ability to speak Spanish, Herrera said Spain was a common-sense choice for a first-ever overseas tour. To entice local crowds, the orchestra booked famed Spanish guitarist Pepe Romero to play the most beloved piece in his country’s classical cannon: The “Concierto de Aranjuez,” written in 1939 by Joaquin Rodrigo.
“We picked this program because we wanted to talk to the Spanish people with their own language,” Herrera said.
And yet, this was a bold choice that could have backfired, since Spanish audiences would know a bad performance of “Concierto de Aranjeuz” when they heard one. In a rather famous comparable scenario, a quartet of American opera singers touring with New York City Ballet were once booed offstage in Germany by audiences demanding that they “stop the singing” of Johannes Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes.”
Thankfully, the Annapolis Symphony heard only bravos for its performance of the Rodrigo, at least in Madrid, and booking Romero, who is based in the United States, proved genius. Writing for the Spanish music website Codalario, critic Raúl Chamorro Mena praised the orchestra for its “exquisite accompaniment,” and singled out the English horn player for offering an impeccable solo.
“Rarely has a guitar been heard to ‘sing’ in such an elevated way,” wrote Mena in his review of Romero’s playing, which has been translated into English.
The concert also included Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, a lesser-played work by a composer better known in orchestra halls for his piano concertos. Annapolis Symphony also brought a Mexican work across the Atlantic, opening all four of its concerts with the 1921 symphonic poem “Chapultepec” by Manuel Ponce.
“We wanted to showcase the full symphony at its full power,” Herrera said of the musical selections.
From Madrid, the tour progressed to Zaragoza and Valencia, ending in Granada on July 14. Along the way, donors and musicians toured medieval cathedrals, visited art museums and ate lots of tapas.
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As the critic pointed out, the Annapolis Symphony performed in halls that often host more prominent orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. Those orchestras are typically hired by the venues rather than booking the gig themselves, as the Annapolis Symphony has done. Global pandemic aside, pay-your-own-way tours are becoming more popular with American orchestras and their supporters, explained Rachelle Schlosser, a spokeswoman for the League of American Orchestras.
“It’s not at all uncommon for orchestras to create their own tours paid for by sponsors and donors, and it’s common for orchestra stakeholders to travel with the orchestra,” Schlosser wrote in an email. “Touring is a form of cultural diplomacy, and local businesses often use it as an opportunity to introduce their companies to new audiences overseas.”
Michael Kurtz, a retired University of Maryland professor and longtime Annapolis Symphony benefactor, convinced other supporters to bankroll the trip. Other donors include William E. Seale and Marguerite Pelissier, Katherine Lantz, Paula Abernethy, Mary McKiel, Stephen Sotack and David Huggins.
For fans of the orchestra unable to write such a large check, good news: Two of the Spanish performances were filmed, including one in the stunning Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, and combined into one video available for anyone to stream beginning Aug. 6. Virtual viewing tickets start at $9.99.
The orchestra can next be heard live on Sept. 4, at the annual “Pops in the Park” concert at Quiet Waters Park. Given that ASO is a part-time orchestra, comprised mostly of musicians who also play in other area ensembles and at theaters, Herrera believes that local audiences will notice a difference when the orchestra next gathers at Maryland Hall. Despite the smaller confines, he hopes the chance to play together at some of Spain’s finest venues will continue inspiring the orchestra.
“When you come back, you have that new standard,” Hererra said. “It just keeps getting better and better.”
Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor Michael Paarlberg contributed translation help to this story.