On its last trip to Japan five years ago, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a smash. With violin legend Isaac Stern as a drawing-card soloist, the orchestra was a popular and critical success, its tour dampened only by a sudden illness suffered by its music director.
On Tuesday, the BSO sets out across the Pacific again, but this time things are different - a lot different.
With a new music director, two featured soloists who are less than household names and an orchestra that's been reshaped in both personnel and sound, the BSO will face a challenge in conquering this key classical music market again.
The goals for the six-city, $2 million tour, the BSO's third in Japan since 1994, are the same as those for last winter's well-received tour of Western Europe - to reconfirm the BSO's international credentials and to introduce foreign audiences to the still-new partnership between music director Yuri Temirkanov and the ensemble.
"The three major markets for symphony musicians are Europe, Japan and the U.S.," says BSO president John Gidwitz. "For an orchestra to develop a following and a reputation, you have to return on a reasonably frequent basis. The general strategy was that we would come back to Japan three or four years after our last tour in '97, but the change in musical leadership threw that schedule off a little bit."
That change, from David Zinman to Temirkanov in January 2000, has essentially resulted in a new BSO.
"We play very differently now," says violinist Mari Matsumoto.
The Japanese-born Matsumoto, who was on the BSO's two previous tours to her homeland, is looking forward to this third visit - with reservations
"The first time we went, I was very worried because the Baltimore Symphony was unknown," she says. "We took [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, so I knew there was a really good chance for good attendance. It turned out to be a great success.
"At the end of that year, an article in one of the biggest papers in Japan chose the Baltimore Symphony as one of the three best visiting orchestras of the season. So the second time we went, I was confident that our name and good reputation would be remembered."
For that second tour, the BSO had another major classical star as guest artist, violinist Isaac Stern. On the upcoming tour, the orchestra will feature Japanese pianist Michie Koyama and up-and-coming 17-year-old violinist Stefan Jackiw.
"That [1997 tour] was also a great success," Matsumoto says. "Now for us to go without David and without well-known soloists, I am worried again about attendance. Hopefully, the people will remember us from before and come to the concerts. I hope we will play as well as we did before."
Gidwitz, for one, is sure they will.
"The orchestra's style of playing has changed, but not its ethic," he says. "There is still a commitment to intense performing. This orchestra is seasoned in touring but is not in any way jaded. Orchestras that have toured too much can become blase."
As for concert attendance, preliminary indications are that ticket sales are sluggish in the smaller of the six cities on the tour, including Tama and Niigata.
"Many concert promoters are struggling to fill houses in Japan," says Susan Anderson Stewart, the BSO's director of operations and tour manager. "Subscription sales are way off. The Japanese economy has been bad for so long."
The BSO's own economy hasn't been too robust, either. The orchestra will post a deficit from the 2001-2002 season, its first in several years. The exact figure, originally estimated to be around $1 million, won't be determined until the books are closed, but Gidwitz says it will be less.
As was the case with the European tour, the cost of the Japan trip, about $2 million, does not come out of the BSO's operating budget. Funding is made possible by private donations and public money - including grants of $500,000 from the state and $50,000 from the city of Baltimore - specifically earmarked for touring.
Corporate sponsors, including Lockheed Martin, NGK Insulators and the Verizon Foundation, also help cover the costs. The remainder comes from fees paid to the orchestra by the tour promoter, Kajimoto Concert Management.
"In Japan, fortunately, there is a tradition of the promoter not only paying a fee, but picking up some expenses," Gidwitz says. "That helps a lot. We won't make money, but we will cover our costs and will not add to our deficit. We are not at risk for ticket sales; it could be [sold out] at every concert and we wouldn't make a penny more."
A discerning audience
The BSO has been warming up its tour programs for the past two weeks, offering plenty of solid music-making at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that bodes well for what the Japanese public will hear. And that public is among the most discerning in the world for classical music.