An orchestra's badge of honor THE BSO ASIS TOUR

October 16, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

For American orchestras, Asia has become a land of opportunity -- the world's hottest market for classical music, the place a symphony goes to prove it belongs among the nation's elite.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra leaves Saturday for a monthlong tour of the Far East, hoping to generate the kind of national and international acclaim that followed its trip to Europe seven years ago.

"A success in East Asia, particularly in Japan, will really put us on the map," says music director David Zinman, who will conduct 18 concerts in Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

The BSO has three critical goals for this tour, the most expensive undertaking in the symphony's history.

It hopes to create a market for its music in the Far East, especially Japan, which accounts for 30 percent of the world's sales of classical recordings.

It hopes to acquire prestige as one of America's top orchestras, which would help raise money, enlarge its audience and attract prominent guest conductors, record companies and concert promoters.

And it hopes to return to Baltimore a better orchestra because of the demands touring makes upon players and the way it boosts their morale.

But the tour is more than a musical event. John Gidwitz, the BSO's executive director, calls it "the largest visitation ever to a foreign country by the state of Maryland."

Joining the tour are Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, representatives of the port of Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and the presidents of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland College Park.

"This will show the people of Baltimore and Maryland that the orchestra is important to them," Mr. Gidwitz says.

"Just having an orchestra of international caliber is exciting -- not many cities have them."

Achieving the trip's goals will be expensive.

It will cost $2 million to move 100 musicians, a support staff of 20 and more than 11 tons of cargo across half the globe and back.

A badge of distinction

But it is money Mr. Gidwitz and Mr. Zinman say the orchestra cannot afford not to spend.

Tours of Asia have become a necessary badge of distinction for an orchestra, much as tours of Europe once were.

Indeed, Asian promoters might not be interested in the BSO were it not for the success of its 1987 trip to Europe, which included the first visit to Russia by an American orchestra in more than a decade.

That trip came as the BSO was rising steadily in prominence after Mr. Zinman's appointment as music director in 1985.

His provocative performances of the Beethoven symphonies, which were among the first in the U.S. to employ early 19th-century performance practices, attracted national attention.

The trip to Europe brought more notice -- and paid immediate dividends, Mr. Gidwitz says. The next year ticket sales rose more than 14 percent to set a new attendance record.

Excitement generated by the tour helped the orchestra complete its $40 million endowment drive ahead of schedule, and the number of participants in its annual drive for the operating fund rose by 24 percent.

The BSO's superb London concert attracted the attention of London-Decca, the prestigious record company for which the orchestra now records. And the orchestra's enormous success in two concerts in St. Petersburg led to relationships with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic's chief conductors, Yuri Temirkanov and Mariss Janssons, now two of the BSO's most important guests on the podium.

'Everyone was talking'

"When I got back to Petersburg from the Netherlands, everyone was still talking about Baltimore's concerts," says Valery Gergiev, the acclaimed music director of St. Petersburg's Kirov Opera. "It's an orchestra that I would like to conduct someday."

The European tour also brought widespread attention to the BSO's innovations. The orchestra won accolades for less hackneyed programming that emphasized new and accessible American works; innovative concert formats, such as the now widely imitated "Casual Concerts"; and off-the-wall radio broadcasts that became syndicated on American Public Radio and earned the BSO a national audience.

"The European tour, added to its interesting programs, created a lot of excitement about and enormous momentum for the orchestra," says Mark Volpe, executive director of the Detroit Symphony. "Things had reached a critical mass."

But just when it seemed the BSO had become the nation's hottest orchestral property, its progress was interrupted: In the 1988-1989 season, a six-month players' strike -- the longest ever by a major orchestra -- dissipated the BSO's momentum.

Several years of hard work have re-established trust between the musicians and management, but the orchestra has encountered additional roadblocks. A downturn in the U.S. economy, for instance, led to the cancellation of an Asian tour scheduled for 1990.

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