The BSO isn't home alone: Orchestras are touring less

May 24, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Last week's classical concerts by the Baltimore Symphony were the first by the orchestra in Meyerhoff Hall in more than a month. Where -- one might ask -- have the musicians been? Except for two weeks of vacation they've been here -- playing run-outs, pop concerts and tiny tots concerts. But symphonic schedules are usually worked out years in advance, and the reason that the BSO musicians didn't have any classical concerts in Meyerhoff was that they were originally scheduled to be somewhere else during this period -- in Europe on a three-week tour.

It would have been a great tour -- a trip that would have taken

the BSO to Barcelona for the Festival of Two Worlds, to the Genoa Festival that celebrates the quincentennial anniversary of the voyage of that great Genoese, Christoforo Colombo, and to some of the most fabled concert halls in Europe, including Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. That tour -- canceled late in 1990 because of lack of funds -- came to mind recently partly because of the orchestra's extended absence from Meyerhoff Hall and partly because another BSO tour-- this one of the Far East and tentatively scheduled for 1993 -- was postponed. And that, in turn, called to mind the fact that this orchestra, which toured Europe and the former Soviet Union triumphantly in 1987 and followed that excursion with successive trips to the West Coast (1988), the East Coast (1989) and the Midwest (1990), hasn't toured in more than two years and has announced no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.

What gives here? Weren't we told that touring was an important part of the BSO's future? That touring was something that a symphony orchestra had to do if it was to be successful?

Problem's widespread

The fact is that all American orchestras are touring less. A short list of the orchestras that have recently canceled or shortened tours -- whether domestic or foreign -- includes the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Louis Orchestra. And some tours almost were canceled: Last year's tour by the Atlanta Symphony was saved when Delta Airlines, which is headquartered in that city, kicked in with free airfares; and the Chicago Symphony, perhaps America's most prestigious orchestra, only made it to the prestigious Salzburg Festival on its recent tour when -- literally at the last moment -- a donor kicked in the $185,000 necessary to make it possible for the orchestra to play in Mozart's birthplace.

This isn't just an American problem. Earlier this season the City of Birmingham Orchestra lost the West Coast leg of its American tour; the London Symphony, which just finished a U.S. tour, played fewer concerts than originally scheduled; and Milan's La Scala and its music director, Riccardo Muti, who were supposed to visit Washington's Kennedy Center this fall for two gala weeks of staged operas, may not come after all. An index to the problem is the orchestral bookings by the Washington Performing Arts Society -- the mid-Atlantic states' premier concert presenter. In the mid-1980s, WPAS presented 20

orchestral concerts each year; this year it presented only 12. The problem, as it almost always is in the performing arts, is money -- or, rather, the lack of it.

The cost of hotel rooms

What's happening is that there is a world-wide recession in which orchestras are facing ever higher costs and presenters are having a harder time than ever selling tickets to concertgoers who are ever more careful about how they spend their money. The cost of an orchestra for a single evening ranges between $25,000 (orchestras from eastern European countries such as Russia will do almost anything to obtain Western currency) and $150,000 (the only two orchestras that charge this much are the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics). The average orchestra is in the $65,000 to $75,000 range (the BSO is slightly below that figure). Just how expensive a tour can be is seen if you just look at the costs of hotel rooms. In New York a decent hotel room in the environs of Carnegie Hall (even at volume discount rates) is at least $120 for a single night. Multiply that by about 115 people (most orchestras travel with a support staff of 12 to 15), and you begin to get an idea of the costs involved. (One of the reasons that eastern European orchestras tour so cheaply is that their impoverished players happily double up in fleabag hotels.)

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