UPDATED VERSION, 4:50 pm: The National Symphony Orchestra has finally confirmed that, as has long been rumored, it is going to Latin and South America in June. It’s the orchestra’s first international tour under Christoph Eschenbach.
The “Americas tour,” from June 12 to 27, involves eight concerts in five countries: Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil (in Sao Paolo and Rio). The two stops in Argentina include a performance at Buenos Aires’s storied Teatro Colon, said to be one of the five best halls in the world.
The NSO’s first-ever international tour, in 1959, was also to Latin and South America, though it lasted not 15 days but a staggering 12 weeks. At that time, the orchestra traveled as part of a program from the U.S. State Department. How times have changed. The NSO is not announcing this tour’s sponsors until next week — the tour will cost around $2.1 million, some $650,000 more than the China tour in 2009 — but it’s safe to say that the United States Government is not among them.
“It is especially pleasing that this tour visits a part of the world that occupies a very important place in the NSO’s history, as it does in mine,” said Eschenbach in a statement. “One of my very earliest tours as a pianist included many of the same countries we will visit, and to this day I remember the warmth and welcome of the audiences.”
The NSO traveled extensively under Mstislav Rostropovich. But touring opportunities fell off in the early 2000s for most American orchestras. When the NSO went to China in 2009 under Ivan Fisher, its principal conductor, it was its first international tour in seven years.
Although the League of American Orchestras does not keep statistics on touring, anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s picking up: New York and Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Chicago have all made or are making tours in 2012. Today, a tour aims to bolster cultural exchange and an orchestra’s reputation, rather than its income; the NSO expects to break even on this tour, as it nearly broke even on the China tour. The NSO does, at last, have one recording with Eschenbach to promote — its Remembering JFK CD, recorded live in 2011 — but the main goals of this tour, in Eschenbach’s words, are “to bring this great orchestra to wider recognition” and “greater international artistic friendship.”
In addition, “there is increased interest in outreach activities,” says Rita Shapiro, the orchestra’s executive director. The tour’s main presenting partner is the Mozarteum Brasileiro, who has asked the orchestra not only to lead master classes, but to help flag young talent. In Trinidad and Tobago, where the NSO performances are part of the country’s celebrations of 50 years of independence — the American ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, Beatrice Welters, is a former NSO board member — Eschenbach will work with the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Philharmonic. There will also be master classes in Mexico, and perhaps at other stops as well; the details of outreach activities are the last part of the tour to be set in place.
Outreach has become a key component of American orchestras’ activity in recent years. But one of the NSO’s key outreach projects, the American Residencies, has been dormant for a couple of years. The orchestra has begun an “NSO in your neighborhood” project at home, starting with Columbia Heights appearances in January. But “Maestro Eschenbach has a strong desire to have us represented internationally,” Shapiro says. “Our focus, increasingly, will be on international touring.”
The question is what exactly the orchestra represents. It isn’t American work, surely; in stark contrast to recent tours by the Chicago Symphony and San Francisco Symphony, it’s offering a lone contemporary piece, “Blue Blazes” by the 30-something American composer Sean Shepherd. (The piece will have its world premiere at the Kennedy Center on May 31.) Its presence seems like a dutiful checkmark alongside this orchestra’s real tradition, which Eschenbach cultivates: the great works of the European canon. The tour repertory (which will all be aired at the Kennedy Center in the orchestra’s last two regular-season concerts) includes Strauss’s Rosenkavalier Suite; Lalo’s cello concerto with the soloist Claudio Bohórquez; Beethoven’s 7th and Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture.”
Indeed, if the NSO is showcasing anything distinctive to itself, it’s the Tchaikovsky 5th, which appears to be the orchestra’s trademark; it also brought it to China in 2009.
Eschenbach “believes very passionately that going on the road builds ensemble,” Shapiro said. Perhaps that Tchaikovsky symphony will just keep getting better.