New York Philharmonic: On the Road

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic: On the Road
As the New York Philharmonic prepares to embark on its Winter U.S. Tour 2009, we present a special look at how the Orchestra travels.

You may find it a burden to pay $25 to check a bag at the airport, but try traveling with harpsichord, tubas, and kettle drums. Getting from place to place today is hard enough, but the logistics are especially challenging for a vaunted institution like the New York Philharmonic, the world's most traveled orchestra. Since its first domestic tour back in 1883, and its inaugural international travel in 1930, the Philharmonic has performed in 422 cities, in 59 countries and on five continents, most recently in Europe last fall. It's the road warrior of symphonic ensembles. Imagine the mileage points.

The New York Philharmonic is traveling closer to home next month on the Winter U.S. Tour 2009, its final tour with Music Director Lorin Maazel. The Orchestra will return to cities such as Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, where it gave critically acclaimed, sold-out performances in 2005. The tour also brings the musicians for the first time to Naples, Florida; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Danville, Kentucky. Between February 21 and March 9 the Philharmonic will play 13 concerts in nine cities in the United States and Puerto Rico; on the program will be masterworks that Mr. Maazel and the Orchestra have enjoyed performing before, such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Schumann's Symphony No. 4, and Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

For a tour anywhere to be feasible, a local group or theater has to sponsor the Orchestra. This is the least of the New York Philharmonic's hurdles, as many countries vie to host the Orchestra, including those in the Far East and Europe, regions that the Philharmonic visited in 2008. It is that demand that has established the Orchestra as something of a global brand, a rare quality it shares with its first-ever and exclusive Global Sponsor, Credit Suisse. This partnership supports the Philharmonic's activities year-round, both at home and abroad.

Given its own worldwide presence, Credit Suisse is the ideal colleague to help support and foster the Philhar-monic's role as a cultural ambassador. The upcoming Winter U.S. Tour is not so much about cultural exchange, of course, as it marks the first domestic tour under the Credit Suisse banner. Nevertheless, the financial firm is very excited about the endeavor. "One of the principal attractions of our role as Global Sponsor of the New York Philharmonic is its touring schedule that takes them to all corners of the world and now across the United States," said Karlheinz Muhr, Managing Director of Credit Suisse and a member of the Philharmonic's Board of Directors. "The Orchestra's ability to bring beautiful music to a diverse range of audiences in many places is a proud part of their heritage and one which Credit Suisse is delighted to share in." Where the Boston Symphony descends on Tanglewood, the Chicago Symphony alights on Ravinia, or the Los Angeles Philharmonic takes to the Hollywood Bowl, the New York Philharmonic heads to ... anywhere. As Philharmonic President Zarin Mehta puts it, "The time others spend at summer homes we get to use by traveling and bringing our music to the world."

But in an era of round-the-clock news cycles and videoconferencing, when many prefer to get their entertainment from the comfort of their homes through YouTube uploads, instant downloads, and more, why does touring remain important to the Orchestra? Because for the New York Philharmonic : which is certainly forward thinking, having em-braced podcasts, digital performance downloads, and Website Virtual Tours (this tour will have one, too, at WinterUS2009) : a grand-scale tour remains a cultural mission. The Orchestra is known all over the world because it has brought its music all over the world. Its concerts overseas are major local and national events that regularly sell out.

Through decades of travel and performing (as well as its rich library of recordings), the New York Philharmonic has not only increased international traffic to the Philharmonic's Website, it has increased the number of foreign visitors attending the Orchestra's concerts at home. The Philharmonic now has subscribers to its concerts from more than 80 countries worldwide, a direct result of its international presence.

Touring a large orchestra has never been simple, and in the past it was particularly arduous. In 1930, when the Philhar-monic began touring internationally, under music director Arturo Toscanini, performance schedules were more intense than they are now. Back then, the Orchestra might give two concerts a day, or play for many days in a row without a break. Tours went on for six or seven weeks, without even a day's rest for the musicians. Now, management and musicians work together to improve working conditions : thereby protecting the high calibre of the performances : and tours last approximately three weeks, with the musicians getting a day free from travel, rehearsal, or concert each week.

Still, today's stressful traveling environment makes pre-tour planning essential. That's where Miki Takebe, the New York Philharmonic's Vice President, Operations, comes in. She and her colleagues are already working out details for tours three years from now. Advance teams visit destinations to look at hotels, examine concert halls, even assess local transportation, since this can affect scheduling of rehears-als and performances.

Musicians are accommodated in one hotel if the city has one that's large enough. But first, they have to get there. "Sometimes we have to scramble to get from point A to point B," Ms. Takebe says. "It's always a challenge." In Europe, with its efficient railway system, she books or charters a train, which gives musicians the freedom to walk about. In Asia travel is usually by air because of distances to be covered. This is also the case in the U.S., where tours often include cities that are far apart: on the upcoming Winter U.S. Tour, the first concert, in Atlanta on February 21, is followed by a performance 600 miles away, in West Palm Beach, Florida, the very next day.

Internationally, clearing customs has become more difficult, Ms. Takebe explains. The bureaucracy has made getting instruments across border crossings more involved, despite the care that goes into packing instruments and the preparation of the necessary paperwork, so she has a Philharmonic staff member arrive at the airport well before the musicians to ensure that things run smoothly. (Small instruments, such as violins or certain winds, can be carried aboard, but larger ones are packed and shipped in temperature-controlled crates.)

Sometimes the trouble isn't in the air but on the ground. For example, a Saturday night Philharmonic performance in Atlanta coincided with the weekend of the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. "It was an absolute madhouse!" Miki Takebe recalls. "Traffic was completely stopped. It took a long, long time to get to the hotel from the airport : and then we had to play the same night. We finally made it to the hotel, but then the bus couldn't get back to the hotel to pick us all up."

Somehow, the Philharmonic eventually managed to get the musicians to the hall and the concert did go on, albeit a little late. "Knock wood," Ms. Takebe says, "we haven't ever missed a concert because of travel."

Robert J. Hughes, a longtime reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is an arts writer in New York City and the author of the novel Late and Soon.

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