The NSO departs for a European tour, and getting there is half the fun

On the late side of a recent Friday night, a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall crowd wound down its final round of applause, still buzzing from a particularly electric account by the National Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, as well as a skyscraping performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s cinematic “Violin Concerto” by Hilary Hahn.

Transitioning into a din of chatter, the audience plucked up their bags and hats, slipped on their coats and scarves, milled around in the aisles for a bit, and slowly vanished through the exits. Once the hall was clear — and after a quick backstage beer — the orchestra sprung into action.

Just outside the stage doors, a pair of temperature-controlled trailer trucks sat humming with their doors up and ramps down, awaiting a cargo of 76 precisely fit trunks containing everything the orchestra could possibly need as it embarks on its first multi-city European tour since 2016, and its first overseas trip under maestro Gianandrea Noseda. From here, the trucks were bound for Carnegie Hall. And from there, a two-week, nine-city romp through Spain, Italy and Germany.

But first, they needed to pack.

Like many of us, an orchestra can spend years planning the details of a substantial overseas trip, only to cram all the packing into a few frenzied hours the night before departure. But unlike our habitual scramble for adapters and chargers and passports, the packing of an orchestra is a finely tuned and precisely orchestrated operation, requiring months of advance planning and permitting, a crew of nearly a dozen workers and an all-hands effort by the musicians themselves. Backstage, towering coffin-like cases await their double basses; the string section takes over a row of folding tables to pack their instruments; the red case of a rented celesta sticks out like a sore thumb, but fits snugly into the elaborate packing scheme like a Tetris block.

Over 16,000 pounds of musical instruments, musicians’ wardrobes and specialized equipment — from dollies and racks to stools to stands to Noseda’s personal podium — must get packed, shipped and accounted for at each stop along the way, traveling by plane and truck as the orchestra moves from one city to the next.

This is the seventh tour for NSO production manager Daryl Donley, who has been with the orchestra since 2000, a count that doesn’t include his planning for the orchestra’s ill-fated tour of Asia in 2020, which was grounded by the pandemic three days before it was to begin.

And it’s the fourth tour for Krysta Cihi, the NSO’s senior manager of production and orchestra operations, who helped facilitate two previous European tours as well as the orchestra’s 2017 tour of Russia.

Donley’s purview skews toward the macros — the trunks, the trucks, the carriage of cargo across a network of crews and depots. He travels mostly in advance of the arrival of the orchestra, as five pallets of orchestral cargo are trucked around Europe — sometimes by teams of two drivers to ensure the efficiency of long hauls such as the one between Madrid and Berlin.

Meanwhile, Cihi’s sizable domain is the micro. She totes around a binder that strains its binding, stuffed with hundreds of pages of forms and permits. While most international travelers are conscious of the minor “Anything to declare?” rigmarole of overseas travel, for orchestras, it’s on an entirely different scale.

“Everything inside the trunks is, to the best of our ability, itemized for the various paperwork involved,” Cihi tells me on a Zoom call with Donley from the tour’s first stop in Barcelona. “That’s all the strings and their bows, all the trumpets and their mutes. Everything.”

This itemization goes beyond a simple tally and valuation of instruments. Cihi must comply with airline rules and TSA requirements, as well as international customs rules regulating the international transport of endangered species materials — rare substances that appear with disproportionate abundance in orchestras.

In 2016, new rules and broader enforcement of regulations laid out by the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) resulted in orchestras facing much more pressure to meet stringent requirements for declaring instruments. A 2020 report by the League of American Orchestras found that “export permits granted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doubled in 2017 from 20,000 to 40,000,” most of which were related to musical instruments.

Consider the ivory bell rings often found on bassoons, or the monitor lizard skin and whale bone sometimes used in the tips and grips of violin bows, or the Brazilian rosewood used for violins, or the Pernambuco wood used for bows, and you get a sense of how quickly these details add up, and how thick Cihi’s binder can get.

Cihi also embraces her unofficial role as “luggage magistrate” for the tour party of just over 120 travelers, including the orchestra, staff, a tour librarian, a cover conductor, a pair of tour managers, a doctor, a photographer and, if he can get his own things packed in time for his flight to Cologne, a pesky critic — all of whom will move according to a tight timetable of buses, trains and planes. Add to this the unofficial orbit of spouses, friends, family members and 60 or so patrons (who have their own dedicated itinerary from Berlin to Milan) and the NSO’s roving numbers nearly double.

“Once you’re all moving together, it definitely feels a little like you’re on a school field trip,” Cihi says. “But it’s fun being in an unusual place with 100 of your colleagues. It’s an adventure. I just hope people don’t leave their passports in their hotel safe.”

“You prepare as much as you can,” Donley says, “and then you improvise the rest of the way.”

As tends to be the case in classical music, there are limits to what can be improvised. Touring an orchestra in 2024 is a heavy lift that comes with a crushing cost.

Including the Carnegie date, expenses for this tour total around $2.1 million — a figure that includes fees for artists and crews, transportation, accommodations, per diems, cargo, promotion and other miscellaneous expenses, and which is comparable to past tour budgets for Europe (the 2016 tour cost $2.2 million) and Asia (the canceled outing to Asia was budgeted at $1.8 million).

End of carousel

On the revenue side, orchestral tours are seldom paid for by fees and instead rely heavily on philanthropic gifts. To this end, the NSO’s $2.3 million of tour revenue breaks down to $1.4 million of funds raised from donors and just under $1 million in tour fees.

There’s also a substantial environmental cost that comes with orchestral touring — one that, in 2024, may draw attention to itself. The pandemic brought a halt to international orchestral tours for a solid two years, with many orchestras rethinking the intents and effects of a practice that has been a line item given for decades.

Donley cites a number of internal measures taken to lessen emissions (and costs): A set of new wardrobe trunks, for instance, can accommodate the clothing of twice as many players and reduce the total cargo by one pallet. A 10-foot chime called for in the Korngold was swapped out for a sonically similar 49-pound bell plate, with a comparably tiny footprint. Review and modifications of instruments and equipment taken on tour have brought about a 20 percent reduction in the orchestra’s total freight volume.

The NSO has also launched a partnership with the reforestation group American Forests, a conservation group that teams with organizations to reforest areas scourged by wildfires. In practice, the NSO partnership puts $7,000 toward reforesting 660 acres in northwestern Oregon, which, in theory, offsets its own emissions from the tour.

Along with the reduced freight volume, NSO Executive Director Jean Davidson says the partnership amounts to “a tangible action” to reduce the orchestra’s carbon footprint while touring. (To this end, on the home front, the NSO has recently cut the printing of paper programs and reduced its wattage 95 percent by replacing onstage canopy lighting with 60 LED fixtures.)

“Whether you’re a nonprofit or a corporate entity, it’s all of our responsibility to figure out how to run our businesses in a more environmentally friendly way,” Davidson says on a call from a tour stop in Madrid. “And what I’ve been learning is that nobody has all the answers and that many of us are trying different things to try to get it right. I think we need to have the mind-set that this is a journey that we’re on, and we need to keep learning.”

The rising costs, the exhaustive effort, the looming uncertainty, the financial burden and environmental impact that make orchestral touring such an overwhelming undertaking might easily summon questions of how worthwhile it is in the first place. But no one I spoke to in the belly of the Kennedy Center or on the horn from the road expressed any doubts about the value of bringing the show on the road — least of all Davidson.

She points to a pre-tour swell in hometown pride in the orchestra as possibly accounting for a conspicuous surge in ticket sales in January and February. But as the group has moved from one hall to the next, she has also seen the direct impact of an American orchestra with “National” in its name on those who come to listen.

“People talk about soft power and cultural diplomacy, and those words get thrown around a lot,” Davidson says. “But to me, when you’re on the ground and you see 123 artists and staff members interacting with people in all of the cities we’re in — it really does build relationships. Ones that maybe deepen the understanding of who Americans are.”

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