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The BSO isn't home alone: Orchestras are touring less


Last week's classical concerts by the Baltimore Symphony were the first by the orchestra in Meyerhoff Hall in more than a month. Where -- one might ask -- have the musicians been? Except for two weeks of vacation they've been here -- playing run-outs, pop concerts and tiny tots concerts. But symphonic schedules are usually worked out years in advance, and the reason that the BSO musicians didn't have any classical concerts in Meyerhoff was that they were originally scheduled to be somewhere else during this period -- in Europe on a three-week tour.

It would have been a great tour -- a trip that would have taken

the BSO to Barcelona for the Festival of Two Worlds, to the Genoa Festival that celebrates the quincentennial anniversary of the voyage of that great Genoese, Christoforo Colombo, and to some of the most fabled concert halls in Europe, including Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. That tour -- canceled late in 1990 because of lack of funds -- came to mind recently partly because of the orchestra's extended absence from Meyerhoff Hall and partly because another BSO tour-- this one of the Far East and tentatively scheduled for 1993 -- was postponed. And that, in turn, called to mind the fact that this orchestra, which toured Europe and the former Soviet Union triumphantly in 1987 and followed that excursion with successive trips to the West Coast (1988), the East Coast (1989) and the Midwest (1990), hasn't toured in more than two years and has announced no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.

What gives here? Weren't we told that touring was an important part of the BSO's future? That touring was something that a symphony orchestra had to do if it was to be successful?

Problem's widespread

The fact is that all American orchestras are touring less. A short list of the orchestras that have recently canceled or shortened tours -- whether domestic or foreign -- includes the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Louis Orchestra. And some tours almost were canceled: Last year's tour by the Atlanta Symphony was saved when Delta Airlines, which is headquartered in that city, kicked in with free airfares; and the Chicago Symphony, perhaps America's most prestigious orchestra, only made it to the prestigious Salzburg Festival on its recent tour when -- literally at the last moment -- a donor kicked in the $185,000 necessary to make it possible for the orchestra to play in Mozart's birthplace.

This isn't just an American problem. Earlier this season the City of Birmingham Orchestra lost the West Coast leg of its American tour; the London Symphony, which just finished a U.S. tour, played fewer concerts than originally scheduled; and Milan's La Scala and its music director, Riccardo Muti, who were supposed to visit Washington's Kennedy Center this fall for two gala weeks of staged operas, may not come after all. An index to the problem is the orchestral bookings by the Washington Performing Arts Society -- the mid-Atlantic states' premier concert presenter. In the mid-1980s, WPAS presented 20

orchestral concerts each year; this year it presented only 12. The problem, as it almost always is in the performing arts, is money -- or, rather, the lack of it.

The cost of hotel rooms

What's happening is that there is a world-wide recession in which orchestras are facing ever higher costs and presenters are having a harder time than ever selling tickets to concertgoers who are ever more careful about how they spend their money. The cost of an orchestra for a single evening ranges between $25,000 (orchestras from eastern European countries such as Russia will do almost anything to obtain Western currency) and $150,000 (the only two orchestras that charge this much are the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics). The average orchestra is in the $65,000 to $75,000 range (the BSO is slightly below that figure). Just how expensive a tour can be is seen if you just look at the costs of hotel rooms. In New York a decent hotel room in the environs of Carnegie Hall (even at volume discount rates) is at least $120 for a single night. Multiply that by about 115 people (most orchestras travel with a support staff of 12 to 15), and you begin to get an idea of the costs involved. (One of the reasons that eastern European orchestras tour so cheaply is that their impoverished players happily double up in fleabag hotels.)

A three-week tour of Europe costs between $750,000 and $1,000,000. Tours of the Far East that include Japan are a little less expensive because the Japanese often provide free air transportation. But the Japanese, who used to be willing to sponsor visits by almost any American orchestra, are now having financial problems of their own and are more selective about whom they invite. And tours are impossible unless a large company has something to gain. Hence, Atlanta toured Europe because it helped Delta promote itself as a trans-Atlantic carrier, and San Francisco recently traveled to the Far East courtesy of the Amway Corporation, which has a big operation in eastern Asia that it wants to make even bigger.

Now is a foreign (or even a domestic) tour merely a self-congratulatory gesture that helps a conductor and an orchestra become more famous? There's some truth to that. BSO music director David Zinman's stock went up because of the BSO's 1987 European tour, and so did that of his orchestra. The Telarc label's involvement with the orchestra's recording plans became more intense after that tour. (As a negative corollary, however, it's impossible not to note that now that the tour is five years past, the orchestra's Telarc records are not selling well, and the label seems more involved with other orchestras, notably the Atlanta Symphony. The BSO really could have used another European tour.)

The stronger case for touring

But there's a much stronger case to be made for touring. It makes an orchestra a better ensemble. An extended tour means that an orchestra has to play night after night in halls of varying quality. If an orchestra can be compared to an army, touring produces battle-hardened troops. It also produces human beings who -- because they have lived and worked together at close quarters for almost a month -- understand each other better and, therefore, work with each other better. They also -- for the rest of their performing careers -- play the repertory they take on tour better than they would have otherwise. The BSO "owns" certain pieces -- such as Schumann's Symphony No. 2, Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 -- it has toured with, playing them as well (or better) than better-known orchestras.

And perhaps it's not such a bad thing for an orchestra and conductor to show off. When an ensemble and its leader play in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw or Vienna's Musikvereinsaal, they know they are entering history, becoming part of a tradition that includes the legendary masters and their orchestras. Playing in such places gives an orchestra concentration and focus it never had before. And the thing about new personal bests is this: They inevitably get even better. When an orchestra returns from a tour after having played in some of the legendary halls, they bring a new standard of performance back with them.

That newly inspired standard is important. All the things that the BSO has done in the last five weeks -- run-outs, pops concerts and children's concerts -- are important, and the orchestra could not exist without them. But when an orchestra plays about 200 concerts a year -- as the BSO does -- cranking it out night after night, music can threaten to become ennui-producing routine.

Whatever argument can be made against touring -- and it's an argument that can only be made in dollars and cents -- it's not something that produces routine performances. If you play well in Barcelona, you're eventually going to play even better in Baltimore.

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