Thomas Heath
Thomas Heath
Columnist

Alexandria firm moves music around the world

Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post - Classical Movements founder Neeta Helms delivers musicians and singers all over the world with the precision of a Steinway piano tuner.

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Music moves people.

And then there are the people who move the music.

From the corner of her second-story command center in a charming-but-creaky three-story townhouse in Old Town, Classical Movements founder Neeta Helms delivers musicians and singers all over the world with the precision of a Steinway piano tuner.

Helms, 53, and her multilingual team of music lovers book jet flights and hotel rooms for the world’s finest orchestras and divas, from Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra to the London Philharmonic.

She is troubleshooter in chief, catering to every client’s whim, extravagance and superstition, whether it’s making sure a musician sits in the last row on every jet (he swears it prevents the plane from crashing) or stocking someone’s favorite cherry soda backstage.

Helms knows cellist Yo-Yo Ma (“He would recognize me and give me a big hug”), but she also knows concierges at hotels in European capitals who can find a late-night restaurant for a famished opera star.

“There are a few difficult clients, but they are all lovely. When they’re practicing their craft and giving concerts, they need to be taken care of. Happy musicians play better, and that’s what our business is.”

And one thing you learn about Helms pretty quickly: She ain’t shy. She’s as take charge as they come:

●To overcome a plane delay and get the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to a music festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Helms persuaded the pilots and crew of another jet to give the plane to the orchestra instead of the holiday travelers who had chartered it.

●Before one performance at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, she borrowed a hotel’s steam press to smooth out a Russian baritone’s tuxedo.

●When a famous conductor and his wife arrived in a European country with their dog unexpectedly in tow, CM staff negotiated a one-day pass for Fido so the conductor could make his evening concert.

●A top Kremlin official penned a permission slip on the back of a napkin at a cocktail party — in Cyrillic script — that greenlighted Helms and 200 musicians for a Kremlin tour.

The company bills about $7 million worth of travel and concert tours and works in 140 countries. Classical Movements grosses around $1.2 million, of which more than $1 million goes to pay for her dozen employees, mortgage, utilities, marketing and insurance. The company pays full medical coverage and has a 401(k) match.

Helms owns her building and pockets a modest five-figure salary. If there is a profit at the end of the year, and there is every year, she keeps some of that and rolls the rest back into the business.

Her staff is fluent in Russian, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, French, Afrikaans, German and Hindi and knows some Arabic, Sotho, Tswane and Urdu. They have degrees in dance, music, law, theater and arts management. Most can sing or play an instrument.

“The greatest thing about us is that we love music, the staff of the office.”

Helms grew up in a music-inclined family in India, earning undergraduate and MBA degrees. She studied piano from the age of 4, learning a love for Western classical music. She left India at 25 to work in New York City for the Taj, a high-end hotel group.

She started the business with her first husband, who is deceased. While working at the Taj hotels, she realized that many Americans and others wanted to visit Russia, which was opening up to foreigners because of the Gorbachev glasnost.

Through her contacts in the hospitality industry, she had met officials with the Soviet national airline, Aeroflot. She used her far-flung Aeroflot network to get inexpensive Russian hotel rates and good prices for Americans wanting to visit St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) and Moscow.

Seeing the travel-business opportunities with the end of the Cold War, Helms moved to Washington with her husband and established Blue Heart Travel, buying the trademark in Arlington’s U.S. Patent Office.

She started putting together cultural tours of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Ballet, and advertised to take Americans there from Washington. The big break came when The Washington Post mentioned the company in a special travel section on Russia.

A chorus traveling with the National Symphony Orchestra and its world-famous Russian conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich, asked her to make the travel arrangements for its concert in September 1993 on Moscow’s Red Square, where it performed before more than 100,000 people.

After 21 years, the company has settled into a two-part business, each of which comprises around half of Classical Movement’s revenue. Helms also owns the rights to four lucrative choral festivals in Africa, South America, Europe and the United States.

One half can best be summed up as travel agent to professional symphonies. This involves managing travel — including transporting musical instruments — for musicians, staff members, family, soloists and conductors from the world’s orchestras. Most of the preparations are done years in advance, and Classical Movements handles about 10 of these tours a year. A professional orchestra with 120 musicians and staff members might spend $2 million for airlines, hotels, meals and local transportation. Helms said her rates are a state secret, but I estimate that the clients pay 5 to 7 percent of the tour’s cost for her expertise.

The second part of the Classical Movements business involves booking travel and finding gigs for volunteer music groups and singers, from universities to choral arts societies. Members of these groups make their living as lawyers, doctors, educators or anything else. But these volunteers are passionate about their music, so they pay their own travel expenses, which includes a fee to Classical Movements, to see the world while performing. Classical Movements books the travel, books venues, finds local orchestras and choirs to collaborate, and gins up marketers and publicity people to help sell around 200 concerts a year in 40 to 50 countries. Individuals generally spend about $3,500 on average.

When I visited Classical Movements last week, there were about six associates beavering away at their computers. Not everyone works in the office. The business manager, for instance, lives in Connecticut.

Operations director Alessandra D’Ovidio, who is fluent in Spanish and Italian, was sitting in front of her personal computer, booking hotel and flights for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, which will perform at Carnegie Hall in November. Helms said the concert is an important one, honoring the 100th birthday of British composer and pianist Benjamin Britten.

On my way out, I couldn’t help notice a paperweight near Helms’s desk. It was inscribed with the following platitude:

“A Woman’s Place is in Command.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.

 
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