The NSO’s first international tour, in 1959, was also to Latin America, though it lasted not 15 days but 12 weeks, part of a program by the State Department. How times have changed. The NSO is not announcing this tour’s sponsors until next week — the price tag is around $2.1 million, about $650,000 more than the China tour in 2009 — but it’s safe to say that the U.S. 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 U.S. orchestras. When the NSO went to China in 2009 under Ivan Fischer
, it was its first international tour in seven years.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that touring is picking up: New York and Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Chicago all have made or are making tours in 2012. Today, a tour aims to bolster an orchestra’s reputation rather than its income; the NSO expects to break even. The main goals, in Eschenbach’s words, are “to bring this great orchestra to wider recognition” and “greater international artistic friendship.” He also sees touring as a tool for building an ensemble: Performing in unfamiliar circumstances, representing the organization to new audiences, can help musicians play better.
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, which 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 U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, Beatrice Welters, is a former NSO board member — Eschenbach will work with the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Philharmonic.
Outreach has become a key component of American orchestras’ activity in recent years. But one of the NSO’s signature outreach projects, the American Residencies, which took the orchestra to about 20 states around the country, has gone dormant. “Maestro Eschenbach has a strong desire to have us represented internationally,” Shapiro says. “Our focus, increasingly, will be on international touring.”
For a national symphony orchestra, the NSO doesn’t place much weight on American music; this season it’s offering a lone contemporary piece, “Blue Blazes” by Sean Shepherd (which will have its world premiere May 31). Its presence seems like a dutiful checkmark alongside this orchestra’s real tradition: the European canon. The tour repertory includes Strauss’s Rosenkavalier Suite; Lalo’s Cello Concerto with the soloist Claudio Bohorquez; Beethoven’s Seventh and Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture.
Indeed, if the NSO is showcasing anything distinctive to itself, it’s the Tchaikovsky Fifth, which it also brought to China in 2009.