Question: What do Australia, Iraq, Japan, Turkey and Lebanon have in common?
Answer: They are all countries the Minnesota Orchestra has visited since its first international trip in 1918 to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
There have been many trips in the century since that pioneering Canadian adventure. To date the Minnesota Orchestra has visited about 30 countries, establishing a truly global footprint of name recognition. It went to Cuba in 2015, just a year after its traumatic labor lockout ended, then in 2018 became the first professional U.S. orchestra to visit South Africa.
And now, fresh destinations are on the horizon. In June 2020 the orchestra jets off to Vietnam and South Korea in a two-week trip comprising a clutch of concerts, collaborations and educational activities.
Why do orchestras still heed the call of distant destinations, when staying relevant in the hotly competitive culture industry of 21st-century America can be a difficult enough proposition?
The answer is certainly not money, according to Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras.
“I don’t think anyone makes money on touring per se,” he said. “But the readiness of countries like China to defray a significant portion of the costs is definitely a factor in incentivizing American orchestras to go there.”
Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michelle Miller Burns confirms that boosting the financial coffers is not a reason for the orchestra’s trip to Asia.
“You’re not wrong in assuming that,” she said with a laugh. “But we have some wonderfully generous donors who are committed to our work, and we couldn’t do the tour without them.”
The cost of the tour is still being calculated, but the orchestra’s 11-day tour to South Africa cost about $2.5 million, most of it covered by an anonymous donor.
So if money’s not the reason for packing the orchestra’s instrument cases on a long-haul mission, what is?
The massive upsurge of interest in classical music in East Asian countries since China’s repressive Cultural Revolution ended four decades ago is one major factor, Rosen argues.
Asian audiences are hungry for what they see as the authentic sound of Western-bloc orchestras, and U.S. ensembles are visiting the region more than ever, he says.
In March this year the Cleveland Orchestra returned to China for the first time in more than 20 years. Two months later they were followed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, who made a pioneering trip to Vietnam two decades earlier.
They get a uniquely cordial welcome when they go there, Rosen said.
“China in particular has invested heavily in Western classical music, not least in American orchestras touring there. They’ve built concert halls and conservatories, and they’re even supporting the opening of a Juilliard School branch there.”
Business and politics in play
The region’s appetite for classical music is not purely born of a yearning to know Bach, Beethoven and Brahms a little better. There are shrewd business reasons behind East Asia’s classical investments, according to Rosen.
“As the region embraces a more Western economic model with investment from multinational corporations, it sees classical music as a necessary ingredient in making a country appeal to people associated with those businesses.”
Visits by American orchestras also are increasingly seen as important tools of political diplomacy.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba trip capitalized on a move by then-President Barack Obama to normalize relations with the Communist country.
Next year’s tour was instigated by the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, which extended a formal invitation to join in a 25th anniversary celebration in Hanoi marking the restoration of diplomatic relations after the Vietnam War.
The kudos that comes from that type of invitation is obvious, and can boost both an orchestra’s self-esteem and its profile internationally.
Rosen sees the benefits as more than merely reputational, however.
“The diplomatic community undoubtedly views orchestral tours as a way to foster good relations between countries, as gestures of friendship across nations that have had fraught relationships in the past.”
But if the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2020 tour to Asia has an element of diplomacy to it, Burns is adamant that the reasons for going there remain primarily cultural in nature.
“We have a very strong commitment to using music to communicate and bridge cultures, to engage with people outside the concert hall and bring those experiences back to Minnesota.”
Lessons learned on foreign tours are fed back into the orchestra’s community engagement programs on home territory, she said.
“We’ll be going to Austin, Minnesota, in the spring of 2020 for a weeklong residency with the full orchestra, as part of our Common Chords program,” an annual initiative that brings the ensemble to a community in greater Minnesota. “We’ll be doing side-by-side rehearsals and a lot of different activities ’round the city of Austin, and we’re very excited about that.”
This type of community engagement — holding workshops with students, donating musical equipment, playing alongside local musicians — is a relatively new phenomenon, said Rosen of the League of American Orchestras.
“The nature of touring has been changing,” he said. “The old model of a lot of one-night stands in different cities is giving way to tours where orchestras stay in one place for longer, and get involved in a range of activities beyond simply playing a formal concert.”
‘Visceral’ hunger for music
One orchestra used to doing considerably more than playing concerts when on tour is the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO tours extensively, and in 2018 alone performed in Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China.
“Education and learning work is an increasing part of our touring offer, and we are proud to have introduced this facet in Korea and Vietnam,” LSO tours manager Miriam Loeben said.
The reaction of audiences in countries where top quality classical performances are infrequent can be “visceral,” she added.
“In 2019 we toured to Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile for the first time in the LSO’s 115-year history. Every performance was sold out and there was a tremendous buzz wherever we played.”
Asia in particular offers great potential for the growth of classical music, says Simon Rattle, the LSO’s music director.
“I believe there are more people in mainland China learning the piano than the population of Germany,” the celebrated conductor told the South China Morning Post last summer. “If I was an investing man, I would put my money into Chinese pianos.”
Compared with Britain, where he sees the arts as “marginalized,” Rattle lauds the “excitement and passion for music [in Asia]. This is something palpable and deeply moving for us. ... When you play in Taipei, for example, and there is an audience of 2,000, but there are 40,000 outside watching it on a screen — this type of love of the arts is not happening where we are.”
That passion affects even the most hardened musicians, and is a major reason they generally like touring, despite its many logistical challenges.
Yet even these are gradually dissolving.
“New technology has helped enormously,” Loeben said. Using the mobile messaging app WhatsApp, for example, the orchestra and its support staff can “communicate with each other immediately without having to make endless phone calls.
“We use that when we’re boarding flights, or loading the musicians onto coaches to travel to hotels. It has reduced the cost of making phone calls in overseas territories.”
Given all this, are the days of relatively sedate tours to the prestigious cultural destinations of Europe largely over?
Rosen sees expansion into Asia continuing, but sounds a note of caution.
“I think it’s going to depend a lot on what’s going on in those countries politically and economically — whether they continue to see classical music as an important thing to invest in.
“Right now there is a lot of demand in Asia, and different orchestras are starting to go there — the Pacific Symphony from California did a China tour last year, and there are others. And as long as that demand continues I think we’ll see continued activity.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.