BSO retraces long steps

Return: The orchestra leaves Tuesday for Europe, eager to prove itself there again despite security concerns.

BSO In Europe

November 18, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The last time the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra traveled to Europe, there were two Germanys, a Soviet Union, lingering Cold War rhetoric and relatively few worries about safety. When the orchestra flies from Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Tuesday for a three-week, 12-city tour of a more unified and peaceful Europe, it will be accompanied by its own security manager for the first time.

During a lunch break between rehearsals last week, the musicians received a briefing from that manager, Jeffrey Pursell, a retired security officer with the State Department whose background includes a stint with the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.

Pursell spoke about the contacts he had made with American embassies and local police in each country on the tour, and efforts to ensure safety before, during and after concerts.

The orchestra was advised to avoid getting close to any demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan and was given suggestions on how not to be easily targeted as Americans (forget the jeans-white sneakers-baseball cap-look). But, Pursell said, the biggest threat was more likely to be from pickpockets and other thieves.

The musicians appeared to take such talk in stride. Unlike several classical music stars and at least one American orchestra (the Minnesota Orchestra) that canceled travel plans after Sept. 11, they voted overwhelmingly Oct. 23 to proceed with the tour, despite understandable concerns.

"It all depends on your attitude," said violinist Ivan Stefanovic. "I always say it's more dangerous to travel on the Baltimore Beltway. It is important for the orchestra to go, to show them what we're made of, to show our success to the world. It's an opportunity not to be missed."

It's an opportunity that has been a long time coming. The BSO hasn't performed in Europe since 1987; economic constraints prevented a planned return in 1990. A visit to Japan in 1994 was so successful that a return engagement was immediately scheduled for 1997, the BSO's last overseas venture.

Trip to Japan considered

A subsequent transition in the orchestra's music directorship, from David Zinman to Yuri Temirkanov (whose tenure began in January 2000), meant further postponement of European bookings. But the BSO is back in the travel groove again. There's already talk of a possible return to Japan next fall and a regular touring cycle that will find the orchestra alternating between Europe and the Orient every two years.

"Some orchestras don't attach as much importance to international visibility, but all the orchestras that are recognized as major ones are also the orchestras that tour," said BSO President John Gidwitz. "If you do not tour, you do not get to the top, I can tell you that. In reaffirming the importance of touring, we are making a major statement about our aspiration to be accepted as one of the outstanding orchestras in this country."

There is a sizable price attached to that aspiration. The tour - with stops in Scotland, England, France, Holland, Germany and Austria - has a budget of about $2 million, obtained primarily from state and local funding and corporate underwriting. Costs rose unexpectedly by an additional $100,000 upon the decision to use charter flights between the United States and Europe, rather than previously arranged commercial ones, and to hire the security manager.

"We will cover the extra costs through fund raising," Gidwitz said. "The tour won't have a major impact" on the BSO's annual $24 million operating budget.

If all goes well, it will have a major impact, though, on the orchestra's reputation. This will be the first time European audiences will get to hear the collaboration between Temirkanov and the BSO, a fusion that has won considerable praise on these shores.

The orchestra will essentially be reintroducing itself on this visit after a 14-year absence. But, as music director of the well-traveled St. Petersburg Philharmonic since 1988 and former principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic in London during the 1990s, Temirkanov is a familiar presence in European concert halls.

"I am a little nervous," Temirkanov said about his first international trip with the BSO. "I am not used to the way they prepare for a tour here. In Russia, we can rehearse as much as we want, as long as it takes. And we rehearse in every hall we are going to perform in. To go into a completely different hall without even an acoustical sound check is very dangerous."

Most difficult tour

As it stands, scheduling issues have made it impossible to have sound checks in each hall. Dealing with such logistical matters is just part of the challenge for BSO director of operations Susan Anderson Stewart. Although a veteran of three international and many domestic tours with the orchestra, Stewart doesn't hesitate to single this one out.

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