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Plagued by problems, PSO's tour of South America may be its last

Last tango in Buenos Aires?

Sunday, July 08, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

For all of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's world-skirting exploits, it comes as a surprise that next week's tour of South America will be only its second ever.

Even more unexpected is that it may be the orchestra's last tour there.

In 1993, the PSO traveled to Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina with director Lorin Maazel. "During Maazel's tenure, we had a plan of going one year to Europe, one year to Asia, one year to South America," says managing director Gideon Toeplitz. "We obviously fulfilled this plan only once. We went in 1993 to South America, '94 to Europe and '95 to the Far East. Then Maazel left."

The cycle has started again with music director Mariss Jansons. This tour includes the first stop ever for the orchestra in Montevideo, Uruguay and return appearances in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

But logistical problems make it unlikely Toeplitz will take the group there again anytime soon. The trip has been revised a number of times because of cancellations and contract issues. The orchestra lost one city, Rio de Janeiro, and one concert, in Sao Paulo, along the planning stages. There were even concerns about one of the flights.

"This tour was promised to us as eight concerts with a significantly high fee per concert and all expenses paid," says Toeplitz. "We now are going for five concerts, and the fees are only in part what they were promised and the expenses have a ceiling."

Parties on both sides feel blame rests on the cultural and business practices of South America. "It's a consequence of efficiency and inefficiency," says Elias Grapa, a concert manager whose company, Conciertos Grapas, organized the PSO's upcoming tour with ICM Artists in New York.

"When I say efficiency, I am talking about North America; when I say inefficiency, I am talking about South America. Of course, I am including myself. Each time a problem arises, we know that it's not the blame of the Pittsburgh Symphony or of the managers in America. It's always our blame, but not individual blame, because nobody here is able to solve everybody's problems."

The continent's poor economic climate shares some of that blame. In March, the Cleveland Orchestra canceled its South American tour, which was to have begun last month. Scheduling and financial difficulties were the cause, officials said.

"South America is not on the same wavelength we are from a business point of view," says Toeplitz. But even granting that schedules are delayed because Europe and Japan get first pick of touring orchestras, "there's a difference between not making a decision and making a commitment and then pulling back."

For the New York Philharmonic, which is backed by a grant from CitiBank and Salomon Smith Barney, the logistical and financial issues are fewer. "For them, money is no object, really," says Toeplitz. "It doesn't matter how much they make or not, because CitiBank picks up all that stuff."

To a lesser degree, the PSO has support from Alcoa, which has operations in Brazil and is sponsoring the Sao Paulo concerts. But securing a major corporate underwriter has proven fruitless.

"We have been working on this for years but haven't made much progress," says Toeplitz. "Many other orchestras that tour often -- Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Boston -- have regular sponsors. NEC has sponsored the Boston Symphony and Pops tours for years. We have not found yet the company or companies who are willing to put a few hundred thousand dollars into a touring project."

Without such support, it's unlikely the orchestra will tour South America again under Toeplitz's watch.

"If somebody comes to us one day and says, 'I would like you to come to South America, here is a written, binding contract,' and it is a good offer, we probably will go," he says. "But to go on the basis of not knowing ... and the constant political changes down there -- no."

The snags that hinder tour planning are overcome only by hard work on both sides.

"Basically, a tour like this cannot happen, but it keeps happening, which means that many people are doing all they can to solve all the problems," says Grapa.

That's because tours, despite the difficulties, are good things both for the orchestra and for the countries that court them.

"If you want to be an international orchestra, you cannot just say you are international -- you must do something about it," says Toeplitz. "We are going back twice to Europe in 2003 and to the Far East next year. There's not much [elsewhere] left to go."

The stakes are even higher for Brazil and Argentina.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orechestra will perform in Sala Sao Paulo, the Brazilian city's new concert hall. Sabine Lovatelli, president of Mozarteum Brasileiro, which presents music at the hall, says visits from the PSO and other foreign orchestras "carry our season, really."

"For many years, there were only foreigners who came here and who brought the really good events to Sao Paulo," says Sabine Lovatelli, president of Mozarteum Brasileiro, the organization that presents music at the Sala Sao Paulo, the city's new concert hall. "Now the local [orchestras] are competing a little bit, but of course it is all starting. ... We always tried to have three big orchestras in our season. As we are living only on that, people are always looking for the big event. These events carry our season, really."

Grapa concurs. "The season here is based on foreign concerts since we don't have so many good artists here." In addition, South American musicians depend upon the concerts and accompanying master classes by visiting artists to help further their education.

"Our schooling here is not in very good shape," says Lovatelli. "They cannot just go to school like you do in America. They have to have private lessons. They are investing a lot of money in this profession, and then there is very little outcome in the end. So we can provide for them, having these orchestras here.

"It is very important that they have access to the musicians. The master classes can be advice for life, a new way of thinking."

Perhaps the most important thing about having orchestras visit a foreign land is the opportunity for new audiences to experience different interpretations of music. And the changes in repertory -- even if limited -- are stimulating.

"We prefer Classical and Romantic," says Lovatelli, who this season also brings in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Scala di Milano, the Vienna Symphony and Berlin Symphony. "If we have a contemporary work or something, we like to keep it short."

"South Americans are much more musically conservative," adds Grapa. "It is not that they decided to be conservative, it's just that they don't have too many chances. Contemporary music is pushed by nobody here. Many important names in contemporary music are still totally unknown here."

The New York Philharmonic made a tentative step in that direction with the inclusion of a new work by Tan Dun (amid many chestnuts, however). But the PSO will keep things familiar. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Ravel's Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis and Chloe" and Albeniz/Shchedrin's "Two Tangos" make up one program, while Mozart's Symphony No. 35, "Haffner," Strauss' Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 make up the other.

Repertory for the tour was chosen solely by Jansons.

"He was there a few years ago, so he knows firsthand the climate for programming there," says Toeplitz. "Last time he went, with the Oslo [in 1999], he took along a Philip Glass violin concerto with Gidon Kremer together with Mahler's Symphony No. 1, and it may be that it didn't work out so well. So he went one step further conservative."

Whatever the taste, the tour will have two grand halls at its disposal. The Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, a replica of Milan La Scala Opera, is one of the world's great opera houses.

"Teatro Colon is probably the most beautiful hall you have ever seen," beams Grapa. "It has marvelous acoustics."

What a marked difference from Sao Paulo's new hall. Only a few years ago, the Sala Sao Paulo was, incredibly, a partially used train station. Consultants, led by renowned acoustician Russell Johnson, utterly transformed the building.

"This was a very old train station that had a huge waiting room that was never finished," says Johnson. "The four walls were built, but the railroad company never put a roof over it. Until a couple of years ago, the room had about 14 palm trees growing in it."

When he visited it to scout out the project, Johnson made an amazing discovery.

"It turned out that the width and length of this incomplete room were very close to ideal for symphony music," he said, describing it as similar to the great "shoebox" halls of Europe

He and architect Nelson Dupre added a moveable ceiling, stage and seats and have created what Johnson says could prove to be "one of the best symphony halls in the world."

And that's with a train still coming into the other side of the building.

But distractions at the concerts will pale to those sifted through in the planning stages. The orchestra gives its all on international tours, performing as if the next concert will be its last.

In the case of the PSO and South America, that may well turn out to be the case.



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