Minnesota Orchestra Tour #1: London

THE MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA has arrived in London for its fourth European tour.

Orchestras tour for the same reason star athletes head for the Olympics: it’s the playing field that gets the most international attention. Sure, a tour may boost CD and ticket sales to a degree, but the true benefits are in strengthening the reputation of the orchestra. Performing on international stages where other elite-level musicians perform, and being reviewed by top writers who regularly review the best of the best help establish an orchestra’s position in the small, tight world of symphonic music. Orchestras also build their profiles by broadcasting concerts and recording CDs, and the strategy of Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson is to use all three methods in a mix.

A band, whether it performs in tuxes or t-shirts, goes on tour to spread the word, build a fan base, and invite comparisons between it and every other band on the road. An out-of-town orchestra’s reviews in the press help attract big-name soloists and guest conductors, and help establish the orchestra’s standing among its peers.

The handful of Minnesota Orchestra tours is strikingly small compared to the number of world tours racked up by other major orchestras of similar caliber. Despite early tours to Cuba and the Middle East and regular performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Minnesota took a long time to hit the road to Europe—the first European tour of the 106-year-old orchestra was in 1998.

Still, these economic days, orchestras are lucky to tour at all; the Minnesota Orchestra tour is funded by an anonymous donor. Tours are planned literally years in advance, booking halls and selling subscription tickets based on guest performers. This Minnesota Orchestra tour had its roots in the last European tour, when the orchestra played the Proms here in London—long before the current economic downturn.

Most of the musicians arrived at Heathrow on Sunday, and have less than 48 hours to shake off the jet lag before playing a concert Tuesday night at the Barbican concert hall. On the plane, Vänskä said he plans to use the time to practice his clarinet, but he’s also being interviewed by the BBC and other media.

In the States, very few concert venues bring in touring orchestras. Here in Europe, that practice is much more common, and reviewers and audiences are eager to see and hear an orchestra far from home.

Economic times have dictated concessions: fewer staff must do more with less, and the “more” is a 24/7 job of coordinating, housing, feeding, and transporting some 95 musicians and their instruments. Not such a tough-sounding job when the instrument is a flute; a little harder when it’s one of the seven six-foot-plus-tall instruments from the bass section, each shipping in a wooden trunk the size of a New York City apartment.

It’s like moving the cast of five Broadway shows simultaneously. Never mind. They’re used to playing together.

Filed with the St. Paul Pioneer Press from London, 1:13 a.m., Monday, 2/23/09.



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