Travel wasn't easy in 1882 when the New York Symphony, one of the two orchestras that merged to form the present-day New York Philharmonic, launched its first U.S. tour. The railroads, the new "iron horses," were dependable‹but comfortable? Except in the big hotels in the big cities, running water was an iffy proposition. There was no such thing as "fast" food; you had to wait while someone cooked something that had never been refrigerated. Gaslight and candles were the norm. Edison was beginning to supply electricity on a regular basis, but only to one square mile of New York City. The West was wild; not TV-show, theme-park wild, but genuine terra incognita. The earthy realities of the grand tour weren't so grand.
Despite the hardships, the artistic rewards were immense, for the Philharmonic brought orchestral music to many communities for the first time. Exposure to music, particularly symphonic music played with verve and virtuosity, was a rare pleasure. When the Philharmonic performed in cities with their own orchestras, cultural dialogue expanded. Avid music lovers could get the latest classical composition via piano transcription, but had to fill in the orchestral textures in their imaginations. There was no recorded music; music was performed live or it did not exist. On the road, the Philharmonic took the music to the people.
Today, an astonishing 412 cities in 52 countries on five continents later, touring is still a vital component of the Philharmonic's mission. Even today, when electronic media have made the dissemination of orchestral music ubiquitous‹recorded classical music in elevators, on your Discman, on your computer, even in the air at Port Authority Bus Terminal‹ the galvanizing impact of a live concert, that human connection of being in the same room with a great orchestra tackling great music, is still a miracle.
"The reaction of the people we play for on tour is always tremendous," says Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic's executive director. "You have no idea what it means to have standing ovations, people cheering, in Baden-Baden and Seoul and Cologne. Believe me, the reaction of foreign audiences is well worth waiting for. Coming out of the hall after a performance in Japan, the musicians were accosted by young people wanting autographs. After a standing ovation and two encores in Tokyo, Masur finally had to lead the Orchestra off the stage. That does a lot for the morale of the musicians. The importance of touring can't be underestimated‹for the Orchestra or for audiences."
This month, following regular subscription concerts in Avery Fisher Hall, the Philharmonic sets off on October 13 for the second leg of its 2002 Citigroup Asian Tour, with concerts in Beijing, Manila, Hong Kong, Macau, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. The concerts mark the Philharmonic tour debut of the Orchestra's new Music Director, Lorin Maazel. He's logged a lot of miles as an internationally renowned conductor, but no doubt, audience curiosity will run high about the Maazel-Philharmonic chemistry.
The first part of the 2002 Citigroup Asian Tour last June took the Orchestra to stages in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Yokohama, and Hamamatsu in Japan, and in Taipei and Seoul. While the Philharmonic performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Taipei's National Concert Hall, an audience of 20,000 watched a live telecast of the concert on the vast Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Plaza. The cultural paradoxes of that last sentence are rich: an American orchestra, performing Beethoven's setting of "Ode to Joy," in the capital of Taiwan, on a public commons named for the country's founder, who himself had spent many years in America. Only art makes such startling connections possible, forging deep links of mutual understanding.
The two-part 2002 Citigroup Asian Tour marks the 22nd anniversary of the partnership between the New York Philharmonic and Citigroup, which has sponsored 16 previous Orchestra tours with performances in 85 cities and 40 countries and territories. Other Citigroup-sponsored tours, all under Masur, have included North America in 1999, Europe in 2000, and Latin America in 2001.
But wait! There was more travel this summer: the week before the Asia jaunt, as part of Kurt Masur's valedictory finale, the Orchestra had a four-concert residency in Cologne and two performances in Baden-Baden, where the spa's fabled waters presumably battled jet lag. "Too much touring," Mehta points out, "and the musicians miss their families, so we are very sensitive to that." Still, Cologne had its surprises. "To get to the concert hall, you had to walk across a plaza in front of the city's enormous cathedral. The plaza is filled with skateboarders. There you are, on the banks of the Rhine, by an ancient cathedral, and there are skateboarders everywhere. It's very strange," Mehta says with a laugh.
The fact is that the New York Philharmonic is a cultural ambassador, for its hometown, its country, and for the cause of classical music as an international language able to communicate across boundaries. With its first European tour, in 1930, under the mighty Toscanini, the New York Philharmonic proclaimed that Americans, too, could successfully take on the European tradition, and make it their own. Art illuminated politics when the Philharmonic, led by the charismatic Leonard Bernstein, performed in the Soviet Union in 1959, during one of the chillier moments of the Cold War era. The image of Bernstein cheerfully getting a haircut at an outdoor barbershop, just like all the other comrades, probably did as much to cement international fellowship as any behind-closed-doors negotiations. A photograph of Orchestra musicians gazing in wonder at the Kremlin, at the very heart of Red Square, during the 1976 USSR/Scandinavia tour, captures the tenuous political détente of that period.
Nothing bonds a group like traveling together, and on tour, Orchestra musicians cohere into a more familial unit. People buddy up. Jokes get played. Classic tourist experiences take place: the awed visit to the museum, the experiments with mysterious foods in obscure restaurants, the goofy riding of bemused burros. Back when a weeklong steamship trip across choppy North Atlantic seas was the only way to Europe, you wonder if any wise-guy musicians might have composed an "Ode to Dramamine."
There is musical bonding, as well: "When the Orchestra plays similar programs many times, as they do on tour, it all becomes that much tighter," says Mehta. "The musicians are listening to each other in a different way, trying out the acoustics of different halls around the world, getting deeper into the music. The result is that there's a freedom to their playing that's extraordinary. And the musicians bring that back home with them, too."
Robert Sandla writes frequently about the performing arts.