I had some errands to do on last day before getting on the plane with the Boston Symphony at Logan Airport and heading for Europe. Early this morning I was returning from Ghent Wood Products with some 2×4, 2×6, and 4×4 air-dried hemlock lumber to build a support for the salvaged antique farmhouse sink we’re installing in our new “barn.” (It’s really a garage with a guest room above it, but we’ve tried to make it look like an old barn. Hence, the creative name.) Our contractor wanted the boards first thing in the morning, so I had arrived at the lumber yard when it opened at 7:30. But as I was driving on Route 203 I saw this old-fashioned diner. I couldn’t resist. What’s another half-hour?
I made the right call. The pancakes and homemade corned beef hash at Dan’s Diner were excellent, made by Dan himself. The waitress was his daughter-in-law, and their service was efficient, friendly, and conversational. The senior couple next to me at the counter (there were no seats in the diner other than) chatted with everybody about nothing, just like in “the old days.” And, of course, there was the diner itself, a gem from a bygone age. It seems that Dan–if I have the story right–was a carpenter, and bought the thing out of the trash heap. He then spent the next twelve years painstakingly restoring it to exactly the way it looked in its original oak, brass, and ceramic tiled glory. My breakfast experience was reminiscent of a pre-artisinal, pre-house-crafted era in American dining when food only had to be wholesome and decent to be considered good, because it mainly served as a catalyst for neighborliness, which used to be the primary purpose of eating out. Thank you, Dan, for keeping this tradition going.
Since its inception in 1881 the Boston Symphony has considered touring to be a prerequisite for a world-class orchestra. Though it has always traveled extensively in the United States, its first European tour took place only after World War II, in 1952. For its second tour, in 1956, a tag team of Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux conducted twenty-nine concerts in thirty-five days. Orchestra members were given the option to travel to Europe by plane or ocean liner, in 1952 aboard the Ile de France and in 1956 aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam. For the 1956 tour, Pierre Monteux hopped in the boat with the orchestra members and they even gave a small concert during the crossing. In 1960 there was a mind-numbing, seven-week tour, with thirty-six concerts in twenty-six cities from Taiwan to Japan to Australia to New Zealand.
Among the most grueling tours that I personally participated in was in the fall of 1981, which combined Japan and Europe. In twenty-four days there were thirteen concerts in eight cities, including a flight from Tokyo to Paris that covered more than 6,000 miles and several hundred time zones, more or less. That would have been tough enough, but just a few months earlier we also had a coast-to-coast domestic tour of sixteen concerts in nineteen days. Both of those tours celebrated the BSO’s 100th anniversary. By the time we returned from Europe the only thing the musicians were celebrating were the free days that came after it!
With the BSO’s flamboyant former music director, Maestro Seiji Ozawa, who led the orchestra from 1973 to 2002, the orchestra had an attractive international profile and appeal; especially, of course, in Japan. An annual overseas tour with the BSO became almost a given with Seiji. One of the most memorable ones was to China in 1979, when the BSO became the first orchestra after the end of the Cultural Revolution to visit the country. Visits to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Shanghai Conservatory, and the Peking Duck Restaurant were among my more memorable experiences.
If organized well—something the BSO is especially good at—an international tour can turn the orchestra a tidy sum, covering not only the daunting expenses involved, but also musician and staff salaries for the duration of the tour as well. Nevertheless, these tours take immense planning and are always a bit of a gamble, so I asked Tony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator, why go to all the trouble? His answer was music to my ears: “Because the mission of the Boston Symphony is artistic, not financial.”
After Ozawa departed in 2002 for Vienna, the BSO was maestroless until James Levine’s ascendancy to the throne in 2004. Not long thereafter, the orchestra began to suffer along with him through his frequent bouts of accidents and illness—there was only one Europe tour, in 2007—until he departed in 2011. After another two-year music director search, Maestro Andris Nelsons was appointed in 2013. Conspiring with the ten-year hiatus between Ozawa and Nelsons, the cost of touring skyrocketed as the economy tanked, making big tours a high stakes risk on orchestras’ increasingly fragile budgets.
The BSO weathered those economic storms better than most orchestras and was ready to hit the road again. Though the conductor on tour is typically the orchestra’s music director, Nelsons had not yet commenced his tenure, so the tour to China and Japan in May 2014 was to be led by one of the BSO’s regular guest conductors, the internationally renowned Maestro Loren Maazel. Formerly the music director of the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, and Vienna Philharmonic, Maazel had credentials coming out of his podium and had great celebrity in China and Japan, so all the tea leaves pointed to a propitious future.
Sadly, Maazel passed away shortly before the tour and the BSO was left to find a suitable replacement at the last minute or forego the tour. With an amazing marathon sleight-of-hand over one exhausting weekend, the BSO was able to procure the services of Maestro Charles Dutoit, who was also a rock star in Asia. The tour went on and was tremendously successful, and just as Dutoit had ridden in on a white horse to save the day, he also rode out on one, at a gallop. What I mean is, in order to fit the tour into his schedule, he had to catch a flight from Tokyo to London immediately after the last concert. After his final bow, he ran offstage, changed into street clothes, and was out the door even before the applause ended.
Touring with the BSO’s new maestro, Andris Nelsons, began in August 2015 with a bang: Eight European cities and twelve concerts in two weeks, with heavyweight programs including Mahler Sixth, Shostakovich Tenth, Strauss “Ein Heldenleben” and “Don Quixote.” That’s a lot of sawing! It was a long-overdue return of the BSO to Europe and by the audiences’ response, it was evident they had missed us in our absence. Our 2016 tour, starting tomorrow, continues this long tradition. In a world that seems to be becoming increasingly fractured and polarized by the hour, touring remains one way to bring people of disparate cultures together on a profoundly primal level, with music. We can only hope our contribution can be sufficiently multiplied on all levels of human interaction to create a more peaceful world.
And one last note: Congratulations to the Utah Symphony on a tour of its own. On the occasion of its 75th anniversary, the orchestra will be performing its first concert at Carnegie Hall in 40 years tomorrow night! Bravo!