I was flying to Lucerne, where the 110-piece Chicago Symphony would be doing a week-long tour. I don’t play professionally, but I’m married to Karpinos (the wild-haired percussionist). That means that, on tour, I get to pretend I’m in the symphony, too, attending all the concerts, the rehearsals, the dinners, receptions and everything that comes with what is at essence a trip with an incredibly large family, with all its attendant drama, fun and craziness.
So far, I’ve traveled with the orchestra to Switzerland, Hong Kong, Shanghai and New York. I’ve witnessed jet lag nearly steal a soloist, luring him to bed when he should have been onstage; I’ve watched tour buddies turn into marital partners, and I’ve been lucky enough to hear flute practice through thin hotel walls. Because I was an oboist through school, college and beyond, always wavering about whether to be a musician or a writer, I appreciate how these tours allow me to pretend to be one of the gang without spending hours in a practice room.
Turns out, you don’t need to marry a musician to have the same experience. In many cases, you can simply donate money to your favorite nonprofit — amounts seem to start at around $2,500 — in exchange for the opportunity to tag along on an international tour with the organization.
Jessine Monaghan, an adjunct professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., took advantage of the donor perk to go on tour with the National Symphony Orchestra to Russia in 2017. (The orchestra has also toured Spain, and is in the midst of planning a tour to Asia in 2020.)
She was treated to a semiprivate concert in the Moscow ambassador’s residence; she got a backstage tour of the Bolshoi Ballet; and she visited the Hermitage Museum after-hours.
And then there were the random experiences that she didn’t expect, but which were amusing and memorable.
“We stood up for a standing ovation for the orchestra, and all the Russians looked at us, like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Monaghan said. “There’s sometimes something that strikes you as a cultural difference that you wouldn’t have anticipated.”
The patrons and donors get to experience the behind-the-scenes moments and the logistics of moving more than 100 people, instruments, music and luggage from one place to another, along with having the opportunity to spend time getting to know individual musicians and other like-minded supporters, said Rachelle Roe, spokeswoman for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
But it’s not just orchestras that invite their donors along for the ride. Organizations such as ballet companies, theaters and zoos take their donors to Africa, to Los Angeles and beyond, depending on the area that the group is touring or researching. Among them are Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, which has taken donors along with wildlife experts on safaris in Tanzania, the city’s Goodman Theatre, which recently brought its trustees and donors to visit Cuba’s Teatro Buendia, and the St. Louis Zoo, which has included donors in trips to Africa, India and the Galapagos Islands.
Speaking of the ride, donors typically pay their own way plus extra for travel expenses, a tour guide and all the planning that goes into their excursions. This can run $4,500 to $18,000 per person for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
It’s an opportunity for the donors to forge a closer relationship with the group while experiencing firsthand the work that the company does, Julia Doherty, chief development officer at the Joffrey Ballet, said. Simultaneously, this is a way that the group gives back to the donors who have worked with them.
“The backstage visits post-performance, intermission conversations with choreographers and time spent with our engaging dancers and artistic team are experiences one cannot buy,” Doherty said in an email. “Creating opportunities for donors to form bonds with the people in our organization, and continuing to grow the relationship back in Chicago proves to be rewarding for both the donor and the Joffrey.”
The ballet company doesn’t have a formal travel program, but often invites board directors, major donors and prospective donors to travel along when the location, programming or artists involved may be of interest to them, Doherty said. Past locations that donors have visited have included Florida, Paris, California and New York. They’ve been able to hold Anna Pavlova’s pointe shoe in the archives of the New York Public Library; meet Plácido Domingo onstage at the Los Angeles Music Center; and have private dinners with the Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and Greg Cameron, the president and CEO.
Daniel Morriss, a partner with Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago, who has been a donor for the Joffrey for three seasons, has gone with the company to New York and to California.
Sometimes, Morriss will bring his business partners to the private receptions on the tours to meet and engage with the dancers and the executive team.
“The dancers are at the receptions, so it gives you an opportunity to get their opinion about the performance, and to see how they’re doing in life, to build relationships with the dancers,” Morriss said. “ You’re seeing them in different contexts, and you’re getting more one-on-one time to hear their stories.”
Those experiences aren’t cheap, though none of the donors interviewed complained or even mentioned the expense. The cost of admission varies among organizations: Patrons who travel with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra pay a required donation of $2,500 over and above the cost of the tour (such as travel, hotel, concert tickets). While the Joffrey doesn’t have a hard-and-fast rule, it generally requires donors to contribute $25,000 annually, depending on the project and the donor.
The Cleveland Orchestra invites the public (not just donors) to travel with it on tour, and is happy to help those with an interest secure tickets to its international concerts. It first extends an invitation to donors who give at least $2,500; remaining spots are open to all.
The trips typically pay back even more for the organizations that spend time arranging the tours. An excursion to New York for a preview performance of “An American in Paris” along with a visit to costume and scenic designer Julian Crouch’s studio in Brooklyn with 15 donors and Joffrey staff members garnered even more than expected in donations.
“While seeing Crouch’s fantastical creations, and hearing his first thoughts about what the Joffrey’s new Nutcracker would look like, one donor was so inspired, he whispered in Wheater’s ear, ‘You can count us in for $1 million,’ ” according to Doherty.
These intimate experiences make the trips so much different from a typical vacation, said Leslie Burns, a semiretired futures trader who has gone on tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to locales such as Asia, Italy and Russia.
One of her most memorable moments happened in the Canary Islands, when half the orchestra ran downstairs to the hotel bar to celebrate after the Minnesota Orchestra settled its strike.
“It was a party atmosphere,” Burns said. “They took it up a notch, and we were hanging out with the musicians in a totally unplanned position.”
Braff is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @daniellebraff.
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