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Arts

Reflection: Royal Albert adds prestige to already highly regarded symphony

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2012 - On the face of it, it sounds preposterous, the very notion of packing up something as complex and mercurial and with as many parts in motion as a major symphony orchestra and moving it as far as 4,700 miles from home, all the while expecting it to perform brilliantly on four consecutive evenings for important festival audiences in four culturally wealthy and extremely glamorous cities.

But in the professional music business the word “tour” is resonant, especially preceded by the word “international.” So regarding the tour the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra embarked upon on Saturday, prestige trumps preposterous. The opportunity to hear the applause and to read the responses of audiences and critics in places such as London and Berlin and Lucerne and Paris is enduringly satisfying. It is in those cities the orchestra -- our orchestra -- will perform the next few days, beginning tonight (Sept. 4) at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where it is featured in schedule of the prestigious Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC, better known as the Proms.

The touring endeavor defines extraordinary. For the members of it, perhaps because of novelty but more likely because of its effect of connecting the musicians with their artistic origins and centuries of history, a tour has the effect of charging aesthetic batteries and provides reminders, at every turn, of why one spends a lifetime learning to play just a little bit better.

This tour is also restorative for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: it represents reclamation of its international stature. This 2012 tour is a return after about 14 years to the prestige-bestowing European concert circuit. That luster rests not only on the orchestra itself but extends to the city that sends its orchestras forth as a glittering ambassadorial delegation.

It reminds all of us in St. Louis, in our resource-rich but challenged region, that we are indeed custodians of many natural and man-made blessings, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra among them. For all of us at home, whether we ever darken the door of Powell Hall or not, this tour should engender a sense pride to hear and read that our orchestra is literally going places.

But how in the world is this going places business pulled off? To find out, you talk to Anna Kuwabara, the symphony’s vice president of orchestra operations and facilities. Kuwabara joined the Symphony staff in January so she’s a relative newcomer. Just before coming to St. Louis she worked for the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass. Previously she studied in Cambridge at Longy School of Music of Bard College, and worked for the Chicago Symphony, where she learned the touring business.

She prefaced her remarks not by telling me her problems but by saying that this tour presents tremendous difficulties for the musicians. They need to be able to provide peak performances in four very visible venues. The concerts in London, Berlin and Lucerne will be broadcast; the London and Lucerne concerts live. All that produces pressure, and pressure, she noted, produces discomfort.

This tour is not only emotionally strenuous but physicially demanding as well. There’s a steady diet of late-to-bed, early-to-rise and lots of rushing to get to the bus to the airport, onto the planes, off the planes, back on the bus, on to the hotel, check in, eat whatever presents itself, then jump into gowns and tailcoats and off to the concert hall. And at the end of the performances, after the bows are done, they’re faced with play it again, Sam: a big, bold repeat of the musical and physical scores the next day.

But guess what? It’s worth it. My guess is even the grumpiest musician or administrative employe would agree. I didn’t do a scientific poll, but the orchestra members I talked to were raring to go, apprehensive perhaps about details and the pace, but ready to roll. This is, after all, a milestone in the history of the orchestra, which, for a while, played under a dark cloud of bankruptcy.

It is folly to predict perfection gracing the four festival performance evenings, yet given the currently splendid artistic state of the St. Louis Symphony, it is a pretty sure bet the quality will be exceptional. The repertory for this tour reflects the artistic thinking of David Robertson, the orchestra’s increasingly celebrated music director. The classics will be represented well, as will be  new music and American music.

Because music is the soul of the tour, the most important participants in putting together this complicated puzzle are those who make the music. A hundred and one of them going, along with 16 other staffers, including departing resident conductor Ward Stare; the librarian, the tour physician, the stage hands, and members of the Symphony administrative staff, which includes, of course, the extremely necessary Anna Kuwabara.

Attention is given to remove obstacles that might loom up between musician and music. Rest, for example, is critical, so accommodations must be comfortable and quiet. The need is for about 800 room nights in hotels spread over the course of the tour. Necessities such as hotel keys, along with passports and visas and work permits, are carried and managed by Symphony staffers, as is the distribution of per diems.

On this tour, currency adds a significant wrinkle. Four currencies will find their ways into pocketbooks on this trip – U.S. dollars, British pounds sterling, Swiss francs and euros. Luggage, which could be a gigantic pain if it were necessary for individuals to schlep it, appears in one’s room at the destination hotel, disappears when left behind in the morning, only to reappear in the designated room at the next destination. Tonight, the orchestra is staying in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, a five minute walk from the Albert Hall.

The orchestra was organized to travel in two groups from St. Louis, and from place to place in Europe, on parallel tracks. David Robertson, the conductor, was at the Edinburgh Festival, and he came down to meet his colleagues in London. He and the German violin virtuoso Christian Tetzlaff, who will perform the violin concertos of Ludwig von Beethoven and Jean Sibelius with the St. Louis orchestra, will travel with the musicians on some legs of the tour.

A few of the musicians carried their instruments, but most of these valuable and fragile possessions were packed into 75 special cases (and yes, the harp is going, as is the celeste and, yes, the tympani too). All this travels by plane and truck. The cargo weighs 17,000 pounds in all, and has to be handled with meticulous care -- it is not the sort of shipment that can be heaved into the hold of an airplane or semi and stacked up. The average weight of the cases is 250 pounds; the maximum weight is 400 pounds. The cargo went to Chicago by truck, where American Airlines transported it to Europe and will bring it back. Because of time constraints, the cargo will fly tonight from London to Berlin. Otherwise it moves by truck – probably two trucks in Europe.

The total cost of the tour is about $970,000, CEO Fred Bronstein said. The expenses are covered through a combination of concert fees and contributions.

“The tour is fully funded consistent with the fiscally responsible operation of the St. Louis Symphony, and in no way impacts ongoing, regular Symphony financial operations or needs,” he said. “This is possible because of the generosity of Monsanto and a small group of anonymous donors, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, all of whom recognize the uniqueness of this opportunity for St. Louis, the region, and the Symphony.”

Kuwabara told me she’d noticed lots of excitement among the musicians.

For example, violinist Celeste Golden Boyer, who joined the orchestra at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, said she’s quite excited by the prospect of touring, although she recognized “it’s crazy busy day to day.”

Boyer, who is second associate concertmaster of the orchestra, talked more about the pleasure and excitement of being with her colleagues rather than being in the four grand European cities the orchestra will visit.

“Anytime I’ve gone on a big trip I have great memories of the people I’ve been with. I can’t imagine we won’t have memorable experiences.” Boyer said she loves working with her colleagues in St. Louis. “I believe that being with them on tour can only make the bonds stronger.”

Soon after I talked to Boyer on the phone, I ran into principal cellist Danny Lee in a neighborhood coffee shop.

“Excited?’ I asked

Big grin.

“You bet,” he said.

Me too.

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