Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Playing at music's heights Tour through Europe puts CSO, city on bigger stage

March 31, 2008

By Janelle Gelfand

Eight flights, four trains, a fleet of buses, 115 hotel rooms each night and more than a half million dollars per week.
That's what it will take for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to take a European tour beginning Tuesday. And that's before things got complicated.
As the orchestra launches a nearly-three-week tour to 12 major cities in five countries, it must also worry about the plummeting dollar, tightened airline rules that don't allow violins as carry-on baggage and, like everyone else, stepped-up security.
Interactive guide to the tour
Two weeks before the trip, no tour sponsor had been found as the orchestra scrambled to close a gap caused by huge airport taxes and gas surcharges coupled with the weakened dollar. And for the first time, no symphony violinists will carry on their instruments, on the chance that Delta could turn them away at the gate at CVG.
But the payoff, supporters say, will come in increased business investment for our region, acclaim for an oft- battered city image and international exposure for an orchestra that critics agree is playing at the top of its game.
"It really does bring the city of Cincinnati into focus in each of the European cities we'll be touring," says board chairman J. Marvin Quin II, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Ashland Inc. in Covington. "The name 'Cincinnati' will be on banners at performance halls and in ads in newspapers. It brings the perception of Cincinnati as a community of high quality performing arts."
Besides lending cachet to the city's image, touring sharpens an orchestra's skills in a way that only comes from playing together, night after night. Concerts in four cities - Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid - sold out weeks ago. Tickets range from $16 to $270.
"If you go to Paris, it reconfirms something important about our own arts. Where do we stand? It's like a football team playing not at home, but somewhere where they're not seen as favorites. It puts every player, including me, to the test," music director Paavo Järvi told subscribers at a Music Hall luncheon earlier this month.
Tour arrangements began at least a year ago. But unforeseen was the drop in the dollar's value against the euro - 13 percent in the past year.
International tours are funded by fees the orchestra will receive for playing, as well as by sponsors, who may pick up 30 percent or more of the tab. Last week, the orchestra was optimistic it would have underwriting.
"It's important for us to do these types of things whether we have a particular sponsor or not," says Quin. "If you look at the deficit caused by this, it's really very small relative to the operating budget of the Cincinnati Symphony."
But a tour that cost $1.5 million the last time they toured Europe in 2004, could in this economic climate, approach $2 million. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra budgeted $600,000 to $700,000 per week for a similar tour in February.
"A lot can happen in the world between when you confirm things, and when you need to deal with them," says Marci Solomon, general manager of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
"It's a balancing act," agrees Janell Weinstock, the Cincinnati Symphony's general manager. "When we planned the tour, the euro was about $1.38." On Friday, it was $1.58.
Then there are the logistics of moving 115 people 12,000 miles in 18 days. With an intense schedule that has musicians boarding planes, trains or buses almost daily, the orchestra is taking no chances that Delta Air Lines, notorious for forbidding violin cases in overhead bins, could turn away musicians toting priceless musical instruments. A violin case is longer than Delta's regulation "SizeCheck" unit measuring 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches.
"Last time, Delta gave us permission for some larger instruments to be hand-carried. This time, we're not even attempting that," Weinstock says.
The difficulties musicians have had with Delta while attempting to carry onboard their delicate and irreplaceable instruments caused the American Federation of Musicians to call for a boycott of the airline in 2006. Even though the union lifted the ban last April when Delta pledged to allow small instruments onboard, each flight crew may still decide what is allowed in the cabin.
So most Cincinnati Symphony instruments (plus a few spares) were packed in specially designed crates after the orchestra's Saturday night concert, to be flown separately. Only a handful of small instruments that fit into Delta's container will be stowed onboard.
And the CSO will purchase a seat for principal cellist Eric Kim's cello.
Since 1966, when the U.S. State Department sponsored the Cincinnati Symphony on a 15-country world tour, the orchestra has been a unique ambassador for the city. Today, the orchestra's tours regularly help attract foreign investment to the region.
For the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, entertaining high-powered executives at a Cincinnati Symphony concert abroad is a perk many other cities don't have. During this trip, a parallel tour by the chamber will coincide with concerts in Amsterdam, Düsseldorf and Paris, where potential investors to the region will be courted in seminars and concerts.
"I'm convinced it does help us sell Cincinnati," says Neil Hensley, director of economic development for Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, "because quality of life is always what we're selling. We love the opportunity to make that connection when the symphony is traveling abroad."
Should the orchestra travel while it faces challenges at home to raise money, close financial gaps and sell tickets? No matter the cost, major orchestras tour, says board chairman Quin.
"That's the way you attract talented musicians and music directors," he says. "We are not a Columbus, Indianapolis or Louisville orchestra. If you want to be a world-class orchestra, that's part of the package."
In fact, says Chicago-based orchestra industry expert Drew McManus, international touring "helps draw donors and makes the orchestra appear more important to its community."
As the musicians leave on Tuesday, their reputation precedes them, because the Cincinnati Symphony's recordings are known - and praised - around the world. Järvi believes it's important "to prove all the fuss is true."
"If you go to Vienna and you play Schubert, as we are, you have a lot to live up to. The kind of heights an orchestra needs to achieve can only happen in these tours," he says.

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