“Our focus, increasingly, will be on international touring,” Rita Shapiro, the executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra, said in an interview in April, when the orchestra announced its tour of South America from June 12 to 28.
That was no idle boast. Tuesday, the NSO announced that only eight months after its return from South America, the orchestra will go on another tour, of Europe, for 11 days in January and February. The price tag on this tour is approximately the same as it is for the South American jaunt: $2 million. The orchestra has not announced the tour’s sponsors. (Dow Chemical was a major sponsor of the 2009 China tour and of the upcoming South America tour.)
When the NSO went to China in 2009, it was the orchestra’s first tour in seven years. Now, it appears that touring, as NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach promised, is becoming a matter of course. The last time the orchestra made two international tours so close together was in 1993-94, Mstislav Rostropovich’s last season as music director.
The European tour also is taking the orchestra into the mainstream. The five countries the NSO is visiting on its South America tour are not frequent stops on North American orchestras’ touring calendars. But with this European trip, the NSO is entering the epicenter of Western classical music, traveling from Madrid to Paris, and making four stops throughout Germany, the home turf of the repertory Eschenbach most loves.
“It’s very clear with the European tour that it represents a step up in our game,” Shapiro said by phone Tuesday.
Can the NSO withstand the implicit comparison with some of the most important orchestras in the world? “In any tour, the competition is big,” Eschenbach said by phone Monday afternoon. The NSO’s musicians “have to live up to that. There’s no way around it.” He added, complacently, “I think it will be a great success.”
The orchestra certainly isn’t shying away from tough pieces. The programs include Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a renowned orchestral showpiece, and a string-orchestra edition of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the towering string quartet movement originally written for, and sometimes still performed as part of, the 13th Quartet in B-flat. “It’s very hard, a great challenge for the orchestra,” Eschenbach said.
The tour’s main soloist, playing Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, is the gifted German violinist Julia Fischer, who will appear with the NSO at the first of two concerts in Madrid on Jan. 31; in Murcia, Spain; and at all four of its stops in Germany (Duesseldorf, Hamburg, Nuernberg and Frankfurt). Because of a scheduling conflict, however, she cannot play the tour’s final concert, in Paris on Feb. 10; instead, another Eschenbach protege, the pianist Tzimon Barto, will play Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto, two weeks before he comes to Washington to perform it with the NSO at the Kennedy Center.
Rounding out the programs are Strauss’s tone poem “Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche” and Brahms’s Second Symphony. Notably for a tour involving a country’s national orchestra, so called, there’s no obligatory American work on this program, unless you count the Bartok concerto, written in 1943 when the composer was in exile in the United States. Rather, the NSO is bringing Central European repertory to Central Europe.
Eschenbach “believes very passionately that going on the road builds ensemble,” Shapiro said. “The musicians really feel it’s important to represent our organization well, and in some sense [to represent] Washington to the world.” The NSO has not been traveling on this kind of radar since the days of Rostropovich. It will be fascinating to see what the world makes of it.