World tours were essential for orchestras. Then the pandemic hit.


For much of the pandemic, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, mustering its wealth and brand, has been one of the few orchestras to successfully outsmart the coronavirus. The ensemble continued to tour Japan, South Korea, Egypt and Italy, even as the virus crippled much of the classical music industry.

Then, just as the orchestra rang in 2022 with its signature waltz-filled concerts, the Omicron Variation surged. At the end of January, several dozen players had tested positive for the virus, forcing the cancelation of a three-city tour in France and Germany. Earlier this month, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who was due to tour with the ensemble, also tested positive, upending the orchestra’s plans.

“Everything is very unpredictable,” Daniel Froschauer, president of the Philharmonie, said in an interview. “We think we have to fight for our music.”

The experience of the Philharmonic, which is due to return to Carnegie Hall this week for the first time in three years, underscores the challenges facing even the most nimble and well-funded ensembles as they seek to return to the international circuit of concerts, an integral part of the classical music ecosystem.

Coronavirus infections have dropped significantly around the world in recent weeks, giving a glimmer of hope that touring may soon rebound. Some ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, are continuing their engagements in Europe in the coming months, their first overseas trips since before the pandemic.

But significant challenges remain. Orchestras always face the possibility of being disrupted by future waves of viruses, which makes planning difficult. In some bustling international markets, including China, quarantine rules are so strict that visits are nearly impossible.

And the lingering financial crisis of the pandemic, which has devastated cultural institutions, has raised new questions about the value of touring, at a time when many bands are struggling with tepid door-to-door ticket sales and an uncertain budget outlook. . The Minnesota Orchestra, which had planned tours in Vietnam and South Korea before the pandemic, said it had no plans for overseas trips in the near future. A spokeswoman for the orchestra called the decision “a strategic and philosophical choice to focus on our own city and our own state in the immediate post-pandemic period.”

Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, said he believes the classical touring industry is resilient and will endure. But he added that some ensembles were reassessing touring costs amid the pandemic, especially as “the Covid situation could disrupt their plans at any time and jeopardize the high financial investment”.

“Many orchestras are coming out of the pandemic having exhausted their reserves,” Woods said. “They ask, ‘Is this the right use of money? “”

Orchestral tours have been a staple of classical music for decades, when the top ensembles in the United States and Europe began organizing whirlwind tours to world capitals. Touring then served not only artistic but also commercial purposes, providing orchestras with exposure to new markets and, at times, lucrative sponsorships.

Touring is no longer the lucrative it used to be, except for a small number of elite ensembles like the Viennese. (Carnegie paid the Philharmonic $1.4 million for four performances in 2019, according to public records.) But they lend international prestige to orchestras — an attractive prospect for donors — and give ensembles the chance to build cohesion. .

This all came to a halt at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when classic touring was one of the first industries to shut down. The pandemic has resurfaced questions about the value of the traditional touring model. Some players and administrators have raised concerns about the time, energy and money invested in the tours and the fundraising that preceded them, with seemingly little lasting impact. Others worried about the large carbon emissions associated with large-scale travel. Tours can involve groups of up to 100 musicians and staff, not to mention instruments.

Some groups, including the New York Philharmonic — a regular on the world circuit, visiting more than 400 cities in more than 60 countries in its history — began experimenting with residencies even before the pandemic. Instead of frantic continental touring, the Philharmonic has tried to forge longer-term partnerships in fewer places, including Shanghai, where its musicians regularly traveled before the virus hit.

Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Philharmonic Orchestra, said the orchestra is still open to large-scale touring. But, citing climate change and other concerns, she said it was time to reconsider the status quo.

“I’m not convinced we should go back to the touring model as it was then,” she said. “I’m not sure you can really do in-depth art programs through this on a regular basis.”

The London Symphony Orchestra said Britain’s separation from the European Union’s regulatory orbit had created border delays and led to additional coronavirus testing procedures, hampering its ability to tour. The ensemble lobbied the UK government to ease bureaucratic barriers to touring European countries. And due to ongoing audience size limits in some countries, the orchestra had to cancel some concerts because they wouldn’t generate enough revenue.

“We’re managing our way through this and the demand from promoters across Europe is stronger than ever,” said Kathryn McDowell, the orchestra’s general manager, who is planning a California tour in March.

For international ensembles wishing to tour in the United States, there are also obstacles. (The Vienna Philharmonic, which begins a three-performance stand at Carnegie on Friday, will be the second foreign ensemble to perform in the hall since the pandemic began; London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra appeared at Carnegie late last month. .) the pandemic, dozens of artists were unable to obtain visas amid a long backlog of applications at US embassies and consulates, leading to a wave of cancellations. Although the backlog has been reduced considerably in recent months, delays remain.

Brian Goldstein, a lawyer who represents artists, said some European ensembles were reducing the number of musicians taking part in tours, or canceling outright, after encountering difficulties in obtaining interview appointments for applications. visa.

“This situation has indeed improved,” Goldstein said, “but there are still significant delays and backlogs at US consulates, especially for large groups such as orchestras.”

Asia used to be a popular market, especially for American and European groups. But more than two years into the pandemic, several Asian countries remain almost entirely closed to foreign artists.

In China, the biggest market, which hosted dozens of traveling artists and ensembles each year, authorities have yet to ease Covid restrictions, which mandate quarantines of at least two weeks for visitors. The time and money needed to self-isolate makes touring the country impossible, even for those who can obtain visas.

Analysts don’t expect China to noticeably ease its ‘zero Covid’ policy until after a major communist party meeting this fall, making visits unlikely until at least 2023. When Chinese concert halls and presenters seem keen on international artists, quarantine officials say. turned out to be a roadblock.

“They’re all ready to grab whatever we have to offer,” said Wray Armstrong, who runs a music agency in Beijing. “All we have to do is try to hold on and not give up hope.”

The Vienna Philharmonic said Gergiev had recovered from the virus and would lead the orchestra in Carnegie shows. His appearance raised another complication for the set: Gergiev is a friend of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has been widely condemned in recent days for his actions against Ukraine. Gergiev has already offered his support for Putin’s policies, attracting vocal protests in past appearances in New York; activists are staging protests at Carnegie concerts this week.

Gergiev did not respond to requests for comment through his representatives. Froschauer, a violinist who is the orchestra’s president, defended the appearance, calling Gergiev a gifted artist.

“He goes as an artist, not as a politician,” Froschauer said. “We are not politicians. We try to build bridges. “

The orchestra’s 100 or so touring musicians, who are tested for the virus every day, wore masks during rehearsals and some performances. The ensemble tapped into its vast network of players to avoid cancellations, bringing in last-minute replacements for infected musicians. The orchestra travels by private plane.

Froschauer said the orchestra would not let the virus hamper the performance.

“These experiences are so much more intense than they were before; It’s part of the story,” he said. “Musicians will do whatever it takes to play in New York. They know that we are on a mission for the music.


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