“Our focus, increasingly, will be on international touring,” Rita Shapiro, the president 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. Today, the NSO announced that only 8 months after its return from South America, the orchestra will go on another tour, of Europe, for 11 days in January and February of 2013. (Observers of European concert season announcements could already see something was afoot when the Alte Oper Frankfurt, one of the halls the NSO will visit, announced its 2012-13 season in March.)
When the National Symphony Orchestra went to China in 2009, it was the orchestra’s first tour in 7 years. Now, touring appears, as Eschenbach promised, to be becoming a matter of course.
Another key difference is the venue. The South America trip takes the orchestra into regions that not many North American orchestras are visiting these days. But with this European trip, the NSO is entering the epicenter of Western classical music, traveling from Madrid, Spain to Paris, France, with four stops throughout Germany, the home turf of the repertory most loved of Christoph Eschenbach, the orchestra’s music director.
Can the NSO withstand the implicit comparison to some of the most important orchestras in the world? “In any tour, the competition is big,” Eschenbach said by phone on Monday afternoon. “They [the players] 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 January 31; in Murcia, Spain; and at all four of its stops in Germany (Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Nürnberg, and Frankfurt). Due to a scheduling conflict, however, she cannot play the tour’s final concert in Paris on February 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 Eulenspiegel’s 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, 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 Mstislav Rostropovich. It will be fascinating to see what exactly the world makes of it.