Back from Spain, SLSO looks back on a successful tour
By Sarah Bryan Miller
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is back from its tour of Spain; the staff and musicians are over their collective jet lag. The consensus is that the tour was a solid success, from reaching people with great music to being cultural ambassadors for the region to building the ensemble’s musical prowess.
The SLSO’s four concerts reached several thousand people in the three widely scattered cities of Valencia, Madrid and Oviedo. Add to that the hundreds more who heard the trombone section’s United States Embassy-sponsored pop-up concerts, both in Madrid’s historic children’s hospital and at the main train station — and the 10,000 viewers who caught the embassy’s Facebook Live feed of the station concert.
SLSO president and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard pronounced it a triumph, in artistic and outreach terms. She praised everyone involved, from the musicians and staff to the Centene Foundation, which provided funding, to a small group of patrons who came along and the vendors — trucking companies to travel agents. “Everyone stepped up and provided amazing service,” she says.
Notable among those vendors was Classical Movements, a company that plans and runs tours for orchestras and choirs. It’s an impressive outfit, in charge of the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic tour of Cuba last year; it also runs music festivals in places ranging from Washington, D.C., to South Africa, giving to local communities as well as helping musical ensembles.
Classical Movements director of operations Alessandra D’Ovidio accompanied the SLSO. Madrid is a notoriously difficult airport to navigate, and those of us on the tour had to make tight connections more than once.
Because many of the musicians have green cards, D’Ovidio’s duties involved going with a colleague to the airport in Oviedo for several hours on a free day to make sure that there were no passport issues. When the Madrid airport didn’t have enough staff to push a wheelchair for a disabled tour member, she stepped up and did the pushing herself.
Trumpeter Mike Walk, a 10-year veteran of the orchestra, thought the tour went well in every way. “I think the orchestra was generally delighted by Spain and the Spanish people, and (the Spanish audiences) seemed to really enjoy the concerts.”
He found the tour artistically satisfying, with a pair of excellent soloists in violinist Gil Shaham and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger: “They were both just on. It felt to me that the orchestra started strong and got stronger; it felt better from the stage every time we played.”
Walk thinks touring stretches and strengthens the orchestra in a lot of different ways, musically and socially. “When you tour, you tend to get hungry at the same time, you’re traveling together. You talk to each other, maybe have dinner together. It creates a lot of bonds that might not be so strong otherwise.”
In musical terms, he says, a tour can be stressful, but that’s not necessarily all bad. “We’re playing at unusual times of day, and our body clocks are off. Just physically playing the instrument feels different. But having to master our instruments in unfamiliar spaces makes us a stronger ensemble.”
Associate principal clarinet Diana Haskell agrees. She says touring “energizes” her and her orchestra teammates. “We’re thrown together in tight quarters, and we work more closely in every way. We’re making miniscule changes (in playing the music), and it becomes more nuanced.”
Haskell enjoyed Spain. She’d never been there before and was taken with the people, the beauty of the country and the food.
“But I think what I like best about a tour is the camaraderie,” she says. “It’s a time to talk with a brand-new string player I’ve never met; we sit 30 or 40 feet away from each other onstage, but we’re in different sections. There’s time to talk and chat, sitting together in an airport. I think it helps our music-making, makes us better human beings and makes us better musicians.
“We bond very tightly on a tour; everybody has to help everybody else on a tour. You have to be humble, accept help and help others, and do what it takes to make better music. You never know what’s going to happen. This orchestra’s especially good at helping one another, I think.”
“From a public relations standpoint,” says vice president for external affairs Adam Crane, “I was very happy to see strong, mostly sold-out houses, even for a concert that started at 10:30 p.m. Spanish audiences don’t stand to applaud, but they make their feelings known, with rhythmic clapping and cheers when they like something, and these audiences didn’t want (the music) to stop.”
As an audience member, listening to those reactions, Crane says, “I sit there and think, ‘Wow, St. Louis should be proud.’ I think the orchestra is one of the strongest assets for the region.”
Anna Kuwabara, vice president for operations and facilities, points out that the Spanish presenter was the country’s best-known, Ibermúsica. It was founded a half-century ago by Alfonso Aijón. “He’s a guy who over the decades has seen and heard all the greats. He came to three of the four concerts. He obviously liked what he heard.”
Largely unsung but worthy of credit were the stagehands, led by assistant stage manager Joe Clapper. “Nobody worked harder than the stagehands on this tour,” Kuwabara says.
They were also impressed by the generosity of the trombone section. “I take for granted that the musicians do community engagement activities,” says Kuwabara, “but afterward I realized these guys gave up their free day in Madrid to do this, and on a concert day. That was time when they could otherwise be resting or getting to know Madrid. It’s a testament to our musicians.”
She called the trip “a challenging tour from an operations perspective; it’s not the easiest travel.” At tour’s end, she was able to relax a little when the instruments, trucked from Oviedo to Frankfurt, Germany, made it through customs and onto their flight home. “Everybody and everything got back safely.”
In a time when relations between peoples can be tense, there’s something special to be said for a tour that’s all about music-making at the highest level. Says Haskell, “There’s kind of a cultural diplomacy aspect that’s not a prominent part of touring. I think that, in a way, we are ambassadors for St. Louis and for the United States — very positive ambassadors.”
Originally published at www.stltoday.com.