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Symphony's three-week tour of Europe seeks to enhance reputation

Sunday, May 14, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Writer

Happening as they do in the cities of distant lands, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's foreign tours at first glance seem luxurious and leisurely. This year's stays in Madrid, Valencia, Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna, Birmingham and London would be a dream holiday for most.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra European tour

Tour schedule and programming

But vacations? Perish the thought.

When the PSO departs tomorrow for its 21-day tour of Europe, the musicians and entourage face work and more work. There's fun to be had, of course, but Music Director Mariss Jansons drives home the point that a summer tour is crucial to the long-term health of the orchestra, with ramifications that reach back home.

"International, highly rated orchestras travel and play in great halls and great places," he says matter-of-factly. "This is one of the most important things. If you are playing in Musikverein [in Vienna] or Amsterdam [Het Concertgebouw], this is the cream of the music world. If the orchestra is invited, it speaks that the orchestra is of great quality, because a not-great orchestra wouldn't play in the Musikverein."

In other words, reputation means everything in this business.

That's not to say reputations can't be overstated. America's so-called Big Five orchestras, for example, earned their reps years ago by virtue of quality performances and legendary conductors. Today, their stature is as much a reflection of budget as excellence. There's no mathematical equation that says orchestras of Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston or Cleveland are better than the PSO. In fact, many in the field think the PSO plays at the level of most or all of those orchestras.

The only way the PSO can demonstrate it's on equal footing is to do all the things a top orchestra does -- and do them well. And that includes touring to the celebrated halls.

At issue are not mere bragging rights, but the morale of the musicians, notices in the international press and the ability to recruit the best people for the orchestra and in the office. When the PSO demonstrates, as it did last summer in a tour of Europe, that it performs at a high level on some of the great stages of the world, it simply puts the group in a better position to attract talent.

"The most important part is the place of the orchestra in the music world," says Jansons. "You get [your] quality, you get [your] name, and then [they] say, we know this is a great orchestra, we must invite."

A salient example of how reputation works is Vienna. While Americans waste endless energy debating things like the Big Five, the Europeans merely feast on it all. Vienna will see not one, but four American orchestras visit in the span of a month: Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh.

The management and audience at the hallowed Musikverein expects the same out of the PSO as it does of any of the other U.S. orchestras. These knowledgeable fans just want to hear music played well.

The PSO is upping the stakes this time around by planning performances of very familiar Brahms and Beethoven works.

"In Vienna, we are going into the lion's den," says Managing Director Gideon Toeplitz. "I don't think anyone can play Brahms and Beethoven much better than the [Vienna Philharmonic can]."

Now for some nitty-gritty.

The PSO is calling this a residency tour, which usually means a schedule that allows for lectures, master classes and smaller and full-ensemble performances. The PSO isn't doing all of these things, but Toeplitz feels the title is warranted.

"It does not include master classes and everything else that maybe residencies should and could include," he says. But it has some claim to that status due to what Toeplitz calls "the Stravinsky-Diaghilev concept. We went to our European presenters and we offered three concerts in each city based on the three Stravinsky-Diaghilev ballets."

Toeplitz was able to keep the concept intact in Amsterdam and Vienna, but Madrid, Valencia, London and Brussels will hear only two of the ballets.

In contrast to last year's longer but more heavily booked tour, the 2000 itinerary includes seven cities over three weeks, allowing for more time spent in each location. The orchestra received a favorable response and high marks last year and could top things this tour.

The repertory the PSO is taking overseas should facilitate that. Why European works instead of American ones? "That has been a problem for 10 years now ," says Toeplitz, who says European presenters simply don't think American music will pack halls.

"When we toured in '89 all over Europe, one program we had was all American music, including a Rochberg symphony and Gershwin's 'An American in Paris,'" he says. "In Russia and Poland they had no bargaining chip. This is what we [were] doing and that was it. Then we wanted to do it in some other cities, specifically Hamburg and London and they said no, we will not sell tickets if we do that. We had to bring another program.

"Even now, unless we do it really in moderation, it's difficult. I think, however, that when we go next time to Europe, Mariss will have enough of a choice of American music that he'll feel comfortable with it."

Toeplitz also notes that when it comes to works like the Stravinsky ballets, Europe "does not get an intense dose of this music. They may get 'The Rite of Spring' every few years or 'Petrouchka' every few years, but they do not get it in three nights."

The idea to do the three ballets came from the Musikverein, Toeplitz says.

"[They] brought it up because the Vienna Philharmonic does not play the Stravinsky-Diaghilev [works]. It's not their cup of tea. That makes our presentation even more advantageous to us."

In a nutshell, this tour will be no different from those of the past. As with every other touring orchestra, the expectations are the same; the stakes are the same.

But there is one difference: As in the past, Toeplitz expects to make a little money. Contrary to what some might think, few orchestras rake it in overseas.

Turning a profit or, at a minimum, breaking even is central to the PSO's touring philosophy.

The PSO charges similar fees as other touring American orchestras, but it spends less.

"Other orchestras, to my still great astonishment, spend much more money going to Europe," says Toeplitz. To the extent it can, the PSO steers clear of limousines, travel agents and other costly perks and middlemen.

This year, depending on the strength of the dollar, Toeplitz speculates that the PSO needs to gross about $1.2 million to consider the tour a financial success.

As for judging it an artistic success, we'll have to wait for the reviews.

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