The National Symphony Orchestra is south-bound. The Washington, D.C.-based orchestra’s recently announced “Americas Tour,” its first under Music Director Christoph Eschenbach, will take it to five countries—Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil—for eight concerts from June 12 to 27. In her April 3 Washington Post online column, Anne Midgette noted a bit of related history: “The NSO’s first-ever international tour, in 1959, was also to Latin and South America, though it lasted not 15 days but a staggering 12 weeks. At that time, the orchestra traveled as part of a program from the U.S. State Department. How times have changed.”
In some ways they have, and in some ways they haven’t. While three-month international tours may no longer be in the cards, diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange remain important aims of playing overseas. Thanks in large part to a U.S. State Department grant, the North Carolina’s Fayetteville Symphony in February was able to send twenty of its musicians plus Music Director Fouad Fakhouri to Amman, Jordan to teach and perform alongside members of the Amman Symphony Orchestra, Amman National Conservatory, and Jordan Military Band. (Click here to read a Fayetteville Symphony musician’s first-hand account on SymphonyNOW.) Similarly, in September, the Florida Orchestra sent a quintet of its principal winds—donations of musical instruments and accessories in tow—to Havana, Cuba to give masterclasses at Amadeo Roldán Conservatory in Havana, and interact with musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. (Check out SymphonyNOW preview coverage of the tour here.) It was the first part of an exchange that will bring Cuba’s National Symphony to the U.S. in November.
The Fayetteville-Amman and Florida-Cuba exchanges suggest an increasing emphasis on community involvement during touring. As Midgette reports, Mozarteum Brasileiro, the National Symphony’s presenting partner for the “Americas Tour,” has asked the orchestra to lead master classes and help identify top local talent, and Eschenbach is on the hook to work with young musicians of the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Philharmonic. Education was also the primary driver behind the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s recent trip to Caracas, Venezuela. In addition to performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, (“Symphony of a Thousand”) with, yes, over a thousand performers including members of the Simon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic musicians spent several days working with youngsters in El Sistema, the state-sponsored music education program that produced Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel.
Touring can also be a way to raise a city’s international profile, or even the bottom line. The Cleveland Orchestra continues to cite its European tours under Austrian Franz Welser-Möst as an important source of revenue, and has taken the step of establishing residency-style arrangements at a variety of venues. The Pittsburgh Symphony and Music Director Manfred Honeck aim to help facilitate networking between business leaders from their home city and those in Europe.
Keeping such activities in mind, one has to wonder: what is the primary purpose of an international tour? Should such opportunities be given as much or more emphasis as community interaction? Or is artistic quality still an orchestra’s true “bottom line”? We want to hear from you.