Sunday, April 6, 2003

Despite obstacles, CSO tour goes on

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is touring the East Coast even as the orchestra touring business has slowed to a crawl.

"Basically, orchestra touring is in big trouble," says Paavo Jarvi, CSO music director, who embarked on his debut tour with the orchestra last Sunday. "There is simply no money.

"An American orchestra is such an expensive machinery to just sustain at home. Orchestras have a difficult time paying the salaries for musicians, rather than having budgets to tour," Jarvi says.

With the economic downturn since 9-11, and now the war with Iraq, orchestras have taken a huge financial hit. The San Jose and Savannah symphonies recently folded; the San Antonio Symphony can't make payroll; and the Houston Symphony settled a 24-day strike last week with a contract that calls for a two-year pay freeze.

This year hasn't been an easy one for concert presenters of orchestras, either, says Jack Wright, public relations director with FleetBoston Celebrity Series in Boston, where the CSO performed on Wednesday. "This season has been brutal for orchestras. We've presented world-class folks, but the attendance has been dismal."

In Washington's Kennedy Center, where the CSO was scheduled to perform Saturday, presenting orchestras is "a huge financial commitment," agrees Neale Perl, president of the Washington Performing Arts Society.

"If we sell every seat in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, we are guaranteed to lose up to $50,000 per concert, and that's for an average concert. For having the Vienna Philharmonic, it can be substantially more."

The presenter's costs include paying the orchestra and the soloists, hall rental, concert promotion and the presenter's overhead. (The CSO was also presented by Music Worcester Inc. in Thursday's concert in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Mass.)

"The orchestras invariably lose money to tour, we lose money to present them, and only the agents make anything - and sometimes that's very limited as well," Perl says.

Yet the touring continues. In New York's Carnegie Hall, the CSO appeared on the "Great American Orchestras I" series, with the orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland. In Boston, the CSO is one of five orchestras appearing this season, in company with the London Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. Although Boston's attendance has ranged this year from only one-third to 80 percent of the house, there were sold-out houses last year, even after 9-11, Wright says.

"I think people wanted to be comforted. It was like going to church," he says.

In Washington, although "everything is just a little bit more challenging," Perl is optimistic about presenting orchestras.

"It's not a terrible time - I think the opposite," he says. "People are realizing what's important in their lives. It's a calming experience going to an orchestra; it's a sense of community. People come together and put their concerns and worries behind for two hours and share something joyful."

Deals vary in each city

Each venue in the CSO five-city tour, which ended Saturday, has a different financial agreement with the orchestra. For instance, unlike the Washington Performing Arts Society, Boston's FleetBoston Celebrity Series is not "presenting" the CSO.

"The orchestra will pay us a flat fee; the whole gate is going to Cincinnati," the Celebrity Series' Wright says. "We manage the box office and handle advertising."

The audience age range in Boston is typically 40 to 65. A large part of the crowd will be Celebrity Series subscribers, who received a bonus ticket offer to attend the concert.

"The response from our subscribers was quite good, we had to ask for an extra allotment of tickets to fill the orders," Wright says.

In Washington, where concert costs are covered by the presenter and the orchestra receives a fee, Perl says, "we have different financial arrangements with different orchestras at different times. Visiting orchestras are a centerpiece of our presentations and have been for the last 37 years."

There, the CSO will perform in the company of the Vienna Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the London Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The Kirov Orchestra made a second appearance Tuesday to replace the Rotterdam Philharmonic, which canceled its American tour because of the war.)

Perl annually presents eight to 10 orchestras of international caliber. Audience members do hear differences between the orchestras, he says.

"Every maestro brings a different approach. Some orchestras are famous for their brass, their woodwinds, their strings, or the repertoire that they do," he says. "When someone hears a series of four visiting orchestras, it's not that they don't support their own orchestra as well - we have the National Symphony - but it's nice for them to have a diversity of presentations."

The CSO was part of the "Family Friendly Series," and the audience will likely include politicians, educators, (because of the large number of universities), corporate leaders and students, as well as University of Cincinnati alumni.

"Your concert was attractive because the new music director is creating quite a stir, people are following his career and people love hearing (Stravinsky's) The Firebird and Ravel's Bolero," Perl says.

Touring is a priority

Even though it's expensive for the CSO, taking a tour with its new music director this year was a priority, says Steven Monder, CSO president, whose ballpark figure of the tour cost is "roughly a little over $500,000." Touring does help promote the orchestra's recordings, and good sales help fuel the longtime CSO/Telarc relationship.

"Every bit of it helps," says Robert Woods, producer of the CSO's increasingly high-profile Telarc recordings. "It's like any marketing or advertising - you can see results, and you know that brand recognition is important any time the brand is seen."

Not least, organizers say, it's some good news coming out of Cincinnati.

"This is a cultural asset for their city, whether it's with us as the presenter, or just the orchestra in their hometown," says Washington's Perl. "The orchestra plays an important role in the community and people need to support that."

Jarvi agrees. "There is a sense that we are good for the city, and the city likes supporting successful organizations," he says. "It is a very good collaboration at the moment."


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