Other companies are even more aggressive in their marketing: Credit Suisse has been using the New York Philharmonic’s conductor, Alan Gilbert, as part of its own branding, developing an iPhone app, for example, completely independent of the New York Philharmonic. But for an orchestra, such branding is a small price to pay for getting such an expensive venture underwritten — particularly since it helps get the orchestra’s name out there to a wider audience. “We hope they found value in being able to leverage our concerts for their constituents,” says Shapiro of the China tour, which Dow also underwrote.
For orchestras today, another aspect of cultural diplomacy lies in an emphasis on outreach activities — a new focus of orchestra’s lives at home that, increasingly, they’re taking on the road. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s latest China residency, which ended Wednesday, epitomizes this trend; not only is the focus on outreach something new, but the trip is conceived as the first in a series of repeat visits.
Outreach is an explicit part of the NSO’s South America tour, which was instigated in part by the Mozarteum Brasileiro, a major presenter that also focuses on music education, and which will include a wide range of teaching and outreach activities, including NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach taking a turn at the head of the youth orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago. But outreach isn’t an entirely new development, either; in 1959, in Montevideo, the NSO gave the first-ever children’s concert to be performed in Uruguay, bringing instruments out into the audience so that young people could see them up close .
In the heyday of classical recording, there was a tangible benefit to the time, effort and money expended on a tour: it was (as it still is for pop groups) a way to boost record sales. But the cost of recording today makes it a luxury for an orchestra that doesn’t have its own label — the NSO has released a single disc under Eschenbach — and sales of such albums are generally counted in the hundreds (if that) rather than the thousands. Not many orchestras actually make money touring, though some do (the Cleveland Orchestra allegedly makes money in Europe); in China, Shapiro said, the NSO almost broke even.
So to pinpoint the tangible benefit of a tour today is difficult — except that it’s clear that it energizes players, raises the orchestra’s profile, and is a better thing for the institution than sitting at home.
“It’s a good thing for the orchestra,” says Lambert Orkis, the NSO’s pianist. “It gets them out. You get to play the same thing a lot; that’s good. There’s a focus factor. . . . You kind of climb that mountain every night, that music is not automatic. It shouldn’t be automatic. If it gets to be automatic, you’ve got a different problem to deal with. Hopefully you’re finding new things to say. Even if not, you’re playing in different conditions.”
Different tours also mean different things. The NSO may still approach South America with some of the missionary zeal the orchestra may have felt in 1959; these are audiences who haven’t seen a North American orchestra live for some time, and it’s new turf for many of the players. The European tour, by contrast, is a different animal: Eschenbach is showing his new orchestra off in the stomping-ground of classical music. There’s no lip service to cultural diplomacy paid there; even the token piece by an American composer, notably present on the South America trip (Sean Shepherd’s “Blue Blazes”) is absent from the European programs, which are of all European music.
“It’s very clear with the European tour,” Shapiro says, “that it represents another step up in our game.”
But for Eschenbach, at least, the ultimate benefits of all the effort are to the orchestra.
“All the orchestras I have toured with,” he says, “they come back better than they were before.”