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Why America's Major Orchestras Hit the Road : Music: International tours can mean recording contracts and prestige, but U.S. symphonies risk economic losses too.


The Los Angeles Philharmonic--which is in the middle of a two-week, nine-city tour of Great Britain and Germany--performs abroad in order to enhance its prestige back home.

One of the reasons the Philadelphia Orchestra tours Europe is to enable Italian-born music director Riccardo Muti to show off the orchestra to friends and family, said executive director Joseph Kluger.

The Houston Symphony, preparing for a two-week trip to Japan in July, trusts that good publicity from the visit will lead to increased subscriptions and corporate contributions.

But none of the orchestras list making a profit as a reason for touring. U.S. orchestra executives say that in the recessionary economy--and with competition increasing in all sectors for limited corporate dollars--touring has become a not-for-profit venture. Instead, orchestras say they leave home to gain international reputations that can lead to recording contracts and attract high-caliber guest soloists and conductors, among a number of other reasons for touring abroad.

In 1990, seven American orchestras with budgets in excess of $1 million toured the Far East, according to a survey conducted by the American Symphony Orchestra League. Another seven performed in Europe and Australia.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has a $33-million operating budget and a host of corporate sponsors, failed to secure major corporate backing for its European tour. American Airlines has agreed to absorb the cost of transatlantic travel for most of the orchestra members. (There will be no free transportation for the instruments, however.) And Mercedes-Benz, which for four years has sponsored the Philharmonic's Celebrity Series, will pick up the tab for a concert in Berlin.

Yet according to orchestra manager Ted Hutman, the Philharmonic's tour is expected to incur a deficit of $400,000. (For sponsorship of its 1992 residency in Salzburg, the Philharmonic is aggressively courting American companies with overseas interests, especially in Austria.)

But officials deem touring vital for the morale and reputation of the Philharmonic.

"If you are well received in, say Berlin or London, it is a tremendous morale booster for an orchestra," said Philharmonic spokeswoman Norma Flynn.

"And if a Viennese or a Parisian critic says this is a great orchestra, your stock goes up back home and it becomes easier to market your orchestra.

"On tour, orchestra members work closer together. Our band always comes back more elated and feeling good about themselves."

The St. Louis Symphony, which abandoned scheduled performances in 18 European cities because of the Persian Gulf War and threat of terrorism, instead parlayed its $500,000 corporate sponsorships into a series of community and benefit concerts. Now, according to spokesman Jim Mann, the orchestra "is back in line," trying to arrange another European tour.

Competition to land European dates is heating up, especially for 1992 when American orchestras expect to gain increased visibility during the 500th anniversary celebrations of Christopher Columbus' voyage to North America.

In the view of St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Manager David Schillhammer, timing often plays a crucial role in promoting a tour or a new recording. For instance, last year the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra began its 14-city European tour directly on the heels of a new album release by music director and Londoner Christopher Hogwood.

But, as Baltimore Symphony Executive Director John Gidwitz said, recordings and tours are "intimately intertwined."

"Touring helps to build awareness of the orchestra and develop a market for your records," Gidwitz said. "It works the other way too. As you record, an awareness of the orchestra develops and there is a keener interest in booking the orchestra abroad."

The positives aside, orchestra officials agree that for a group of more than 100 musicians overseas travel can prove exhausting--and a logistical nightmare.

"You have to make arrangements for the freight and get visas and passports and deal with complex tax regulations," said David Wax, the Houston Symphony's executive director, who is readying for the orchestra's upcoming trip to Japan.

"But this is our first time and we are not yet cynical like orchestras that have been touring since the 1950s. We are all very excited over here."

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, since its first worldwide tour of 1956 with Alfred Wallenstein, has embarked on 30 trips, nationally and abroad.

This time out, orchestra manager Hutman not only arranged the transportation of scores and instruments to Europe, but also handled cargo for a concert series that began May 18 on board the Queen Elizabeth 2. Sailing from New York to Southampton, the music cruise featured performances by 40 members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and cellist Lynn Harrell.

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