On its last trip to Japan five years ago, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a smash. With violin legend Isaac Stern as a drawing-card soloist, the orchestra was a popular and critical success, its tour dampened only by a sudden illness suffered by its music director.
On Tuesday, the BSO sets out across the Pacific again, but this time things are different - a lot different.
With a new music director, two featured soloists who are less than household names and an orchestra that's been reshaped in both personnel and sound, the BSO will face a challenge in conquering this key classical music market again.
The goals for the six-city, $2 million tour, the BSO's third in Japan since 1994, are the same as those for last winter's well-received tour of Western Europe - to reconfirm the BSO's international credentials and to introduce foreign audiences to the still-new partnership between music director Yuri Temirkanov and the ensemble.
"The three major markets for symphony musicians are Europe, Japan and the U.S.," says BSO president John Gidwitz. "For an orchestra to develop a following and a reputation, you have to return on a reasonably frequent basis. The general strategy was that we would come back to Japan three or four years after our last tour in '97, but the change in musical leadership threw that schedule off a little bit."
That change, from David Zinman to Temirkanov in January 2000, has essentially resulted in a new BSO.
"We play very differently now," says violinist Mari Matsumoto.
The Japanese-born Matsumoto, who was on the BSO's two previous tours to her homeland, is looking forward to this third visit - with reservations
"The first time we went, I was very worried because the Baltimore Symphony was unknown," she says. "We took [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, so I knew there was a really good chance for good attendance. It turned out to be a great success.
"At the end of that year, an article in one of the biggest papers in Japan chose the Baltimore Symphony as one of the three best visiting orchestras of the season. So the second time we went, I was confident that our name and good reputation would be remembered."
For that second tour, the BSO had another major classical star as guest artist, violinist Isaac Stern. On the upcoming tour, the orchestra will feature Japanese pianist Michie Koyama and up-and-coming 17-year-old violinist Stefan Jackiw.
"That [1997 tour] was also a great success," Matsumoto says. "Now for us to go without David and without well-known soloists, I am worried again about attendance. Hopefully, the people will remember us from before and come to the concerts. I hope we will play as well as we did before."
Gidwitz, for one, is sure they will.
"The orchestra's style of playing has changed, but not its ethic," he says. "There is still a commitment to intense performing. This orchestra is seasoned in touring but is not in any way jaded. Orchestras that have toured too much can become blase."
As for concert attendance, preliminary indications are that ticket sales are sluggish in the smaller of the six cities on the tour, including Tama and Niigata.
"Many concert promoters are struggling to fill houses in Japan," says Susan Anderson Stewart, the BSO's director of operations and tour manager. "Subscription sales are way off. The Japanese economy has been bad for so long."
The BSO's own economy hasn't been too robust, either. The orchestra will post a deficit from the 2001-2002 season, its first in several years. The exact figure, originally estimated to be around $1 million, won't be determined until the books are closed, but Gidwitz says it will be less.
As was the case with the European tour, the cost of the Japan trip, about $2 million, does not come out of the BSO's operating budget. Funding is made possible by private donations and public money - including grants of $500,000 from the state and $50,000 from the city of Baltimore - specifically earmarked for touring.
Corporate sponsors, including Lockheed Martin, NGK Insulators and the Verizon Foundation, also help cover the costs. The remainder comes from fees paid to the orchestra by the tour promoter, Kajimoto Concert Management.
"In Japan, fortunately, there is a tradition of the promoter not only paying a fee, but picking up some expenses," Gidwitz says. "That helps a lot. We won't make money, but we will cover our costs and will not add to our deficit. We are not at risk for ticket sales; it could be [sold out] at every concert and we wouldn't make a penny more."
A discerning audience
The BSO has been warming up its tour programs for the past two weeks, offering plenty of solid music-making at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that bodes well for what the Japanese public will hear. And that public is among the most discerning in the world for classical music.
"The audience is one reason it is good to play in Japan," Temirkanov says. "The Japanese don't have an enormous tradition of listening to symphonic music, but their desire to be part of the great world culture is amazing."
Violist Peter Minkler also points to the audience as a main attraction of the tour.
"They're so appreciative and so quiet during a performance," he says.
Principal flutist Emily Skala describes the Japanese listeners as "reverent."
"It's very heartwarming to play for them," she says.
Matsumoto credits early and widespread exposure to classical music for the quality of concert-goers in Japan.
"There is a tradition there for all children to play an instrument, and most of them are very serious about it," she says. "The little ones grow up to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music; they don't go to concerts just because they have a ticket. They even take a school recital very seriously; here, people tend to treat it as a joke."
With all those appreciative listeners, it's no wonder that Tokyo alone boasts nine orchestras and 11 concert halls.
"It's remarkable to see the quality of the halls in Japan," Gidwitz says, "even in secondary and tertiary cities."
Adding to all the home-grown classical music is a wealth of visiting musicians.
"In Japan, the best orchestras of the world perform every season," Temirkanov says, "so there is a responsibility to match the competition."
As it goes about doing that competing, the BSO expects a steady efficiency of operations from the tour promoter. "The Kajimoto people are wonderful to work with," Anderson says. "They make everything run smoothly."
There can be the occasional glitch, of course.
"Traffic is the big question mark," she says. "Every road in Tokyo is the Long Island Expressway. The last time we were there, we got into a really big mess. So we have to be careful.
"Language is another problem. In Europe, we could figure something out, between someone knowing a little German and someone else knowing a little French. But you can't fake Japanese."
Another consideration involves the style of doing business in Japan.
"They never say 'no,'" Anderson says, "even when they really can't do something you're asking for. Sometimes it's hard to interpret what's going on."
To coordinate the BSO visit, there has been a wide international effort. In addition to the Kajimoto organization and a Japanese travel agency, the orchestra is using a travel agency based in Spain run by a specialist in bringing orchestras to Japan.
The orchestra will fly nonstop between Washington and Tokyo; a package deal will enable most of the cargo and passengers in the BSO entourage to travel on the same commercial flight.
The manifest includes 97 BSO members; Temirkanov and his translator Marina Stokes; seven BSO staffers; a doctor; assorted guests (including five spouses, three mothers, one mother-in-law and four children of orchestra members); and nearly $4 million worth of instruments, weighing about 7,000 pounds.
There will be seven concerts in six cities (two in Tokyo) before the BSO returns Oct. 5.
During that time, more than music will be made. In conjunction with the visit, a four-member delegation from Maryland will be making contacts with Japanese companies to promote trade and investment.
"We'll hold 14 business meetings over five working days in four separate cities, as well as attend four BSO concerts," says David S. Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "We'll deliver a business message by day and a quality-of-life message by night - giving them the story of Maryland's successful business climate and sampling world-class culture in the form of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra."