The NSO rehearses in an airplane hangar during its 1959 tour of South America. (Washington Post)

It costs about a million dollars a week to take a major symphony orchestra on tour. So says Rita Shapiro, the executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra; and she should know, because her orchestra has just announced a second international tour within a span of eight months. The National Symphony Orchestra, which leaves for a 15-day trip through South America this week, is also going to Europe in January.

Touring has long been a staple activity of orchestras. It declined in the early years of the 2000s, precisely because of the prohibitive cost. Now a lot of orchestras are on the road again: Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh are among those that have made national or international tours this season. The reasons for touring may have changed, though $1 million a week is a lot of money to throw at a target without knowing exactly what it is you want to hit.

The NSO went on its first tour in 1959, also to South America. Touring in those days was a different animal. In 1959, most orchestras in this country, including the NSO, didn’t offer full-time work; musicians routinely held down other, nonmusical jobs in the off-season. The appeal of a three-month tour was obvious: you got to work longer as a musician. Emphasis on “work,” because in those years before modern union contracts, an orchestra tour was even more grueling than it is now. This June, the NSO will be playing eight concerts in 14 days — but at least the musicians are taking charter planes, staying in top-of-the-line hotels and are contractually protected from performing on travel days. In 1959, there were no such protections and perks, and the orchestra played in more than 20 cities around the continent.

Ironically, although touring itself was more grueling, it also had more cachet. The NSO’s 1959 tour was sponsored by the State Department, at a time when the State Department was active in the cultural outreach game and sponsoring visiting artists all over the world. And such visits were still rare enough to make an impact. “We cannot emphasize too much the political value of our orchestra’s visit to the Latin-American countries,” Paul Hume, The Washington Post’s music critic, wrote in a tour report in The Washington Post in June, 1959, “where clearly the musicians are observed and met as citizens of the United States quite as much as musicians.”

Cultural diplomacy is not entirely off the table today: think of the New York Philharmonic’s concert in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2008, or the Florida Orchestra’s ongoing exchange with Cuba (Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra will come to the United States this fall). But in today’s global culture, large touring orchestras are not as a rule presented as official emissaries of the U.S. government, or of American culture. While the NSO has a single new American work in its South American repertory, it’s dispensed with the formality altogether on its European tour.

NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach. (Margot Schulman)

Now, its major corporate sponsors — in the case of the NSO’s South America tour, Dow Chemical andWhirlpool — who help pick up the tab, in part because such tours are seen as value-added public-relations devices for the company’s own employees. Cultural amenities, companies have learned, are a factor in people’s estimation of whether a given city is an attractive place to live.

“It is an honor to collaborate with Whirlpool,” Andrew Liveris, Dow Chemical’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement, “to bring one of the great national treasures of the United States — the National Symphony Orchestra — to our employees, customers, and other community members throughout the region.”

“We want to provide consumers, customers, suppliers and the entire Latin American society with a memorable cultural experience,” added Armando Valle Jr., vice president of institutional relations and sustainability for Whirlpool Latin America.

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.”