The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is packing up its violins, trombones and bassoons for a tour of Japan that will move 98 musicians and 18,880 pounds of equipment more than 13,000 miles. The orchestra is a seasoned international traveler, accustomed to dealing with anything from delayed flights and missing luggage to illness within its ranks.
As the orchestra leaves Thursday for a four-city, seven-concert tour of some of Japan's finest concert halls, led by music director Paavo Järvi, Japanese audiences can't wait for their arrival.
"People are very excited. (Järvi) is charismatic, and people really adore him. He is well-known in Japan," says Akiko Miyamoto Strickland, executive director of the Japan America Society of Greater Cincinnati.
Japan is an important destination for touring artists, and a country that holds classical music in high esteem. A national magazine, "Ongaku No Tomo" (Friend of Music) promoted the Cincinnati Symphony's fall tour a year ago with a cover portrait of Järvi and an extensive interview and glossy photos inside. In April, a Japanese critic flew to Cincinnati to hear the orchestra and conduct interviews. Critics have also traveled to Europe to talk to Järvi about the Cincinnati tour.
Their first concert on Oct. 26 in Tokyo will be televised live on NHK, the Japanese national television station. The hall, part of the NHK Broadcasting Center, is larger than Music Hall, seating 3,677.
Traveling to Japan, says Järvi, "is a very, very important thing for us to do. That's where the market for classical music is still very strong, and it may be the strongest market for me. We're known there, and for me to go with Cincinnati will be very visible."
"Paavo's reputation has increased significantly during the last years after his several tours with the orchestras from Bremen and Frankfurt," says Japanese critic Atsuya Funaki, who has written seven articles about Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony in anticipation of the tour. "The Japanese audience ... is very much looking forward to hearing the coupling of Paavo and the CSO."
Two venues on the tour, presented by Japan Arts, are re-engagements. Järvi and the orchestra last went to Japan in 2003.
This time, the orchestra will be facing something not usually on its check list - H1N1, the swine flu pandemic. Despite flu warnings, classical music fans have snapped up tickets to Cincinnati Symphony concerts costing up to $255 in Suntory Hall, Tokyo's most famous concert hall. Last week, crowds flocked to concerts there by the New York Philharmonic.
Japan is checking the health of arriving passengers by using a scanning device similar to an X-Ray machine, to determine whether people entering the country have a higher-than-normal temperature.
President Trey Devey says the orchestra is prepared, and always travels with a tour physician.
"The CSO is always mindful of health and safety issues when going on both domestic and international tours," he says. "This tour will be no different."
Like the U.S., Japan's economy is in recession. But classical music is held in such high regard that fans have likely been saving up for months to buy tickets, says Eiji Hashimoto, professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Tickets to concerts in Suntory Hall, the "Carnegie Hall of Japan," are $66 to $255 (at 89 Yen to the dollar).
"It is very difficult during the current economic downturn. But their basic philosophy is that one cannot get a valuable thing without paying for it," says Hashimoto, a harpsichordist who has toured extensively in his native country. His 2005 book, "A Performer's Guide to Baroque and Post-Baroque Music," is in its fifth printing there.
"European classical music, for many people in Japan, is a part of their lifestyle. They enjoy it so much that they acquire selected concert tickets way ahead of time, and they look forward to the occasion and cherish their memories of the concert for a long, long time, " Hashimoto says.
The orchestra is performing with two tour soloists: Sayaka Shoji, a popular Japanese violinist performing Sibelius, and Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Shoji gave a preview of her performance in Music Hall this weekend.
"In terms of classical music, it has a short history (in Japan), but we support a lot of great orchestras in Tokyo," says the violinist, adding that Tokyo alone has 10 professional orchestras. "Sometimes there are three or four of the world's best orchestra on the same day."
Also touring Japan this month are the New York Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus and Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra.
Partly because music is a required subject in school, Japanese audiences are knowledgeable and often skew younger than American classical music fans.
"Japanese audiences, particularly many young people, are very eager and attentive," says Hashimoto.
"They are very concerned about details. They know the pieces they hear or listen to the pieces on CDs ahead of time, so they are well acquainted with the pieces they hear."
And many families want their children to excel in music. CCM faculty members Eugene and Elizabeth Pridonoff travel to Japan twice annually to teach piano students at a Tokyo conservatory with 2,000 students.
"I think a majority of Japanese families who can afford it want their family to study piano, because they see music as a tool to help kids work harder in school," Elizabeth Pridonoff says.
Where every tour has afforded a chance for the orchestra to sell recordings abroad, this tour will feature the CSO's final recording for Telarc, Gustav Holst's "The Planets," in stores this month. Telarc stopped producing records last year.
"I hope to just consolidate our reputation, because it's been a few years since we were in Japan," says Järvi. "The first time we went there was a huge success. And every time I go back, people still talk about that tour and remember it very well.
"Meanwhile, we've had 10 recordings come out since then. When you go there, and you create a certain buzz, then people keep an eye open to see what else is coming out of Cincinnati."