Eighteen years passed between the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra's last European tour and the one it concluded Sunday. That's too long, said executive director Craig Johnson, whose group is scheduled to return today. Encouraged by the success of the two-week tour that ended in Leipzig, Germany, Johnson revealed plans to return to international touring in three years.
"Our plan is to have a three-year cycle," he said in a phone call from a bus returning the group from an outing in Pillnitz, Germany. Next year the group plans to embark on a weeklong regional tour, with a national tour the following year and an international tour in 2008. Of course, said Johnson, all the plans are dependent on finances.
The recent tour was no exception. "We are not going to go in the hole [financially], but it will take a little longer than anticipated to get back on track," said Johnson. But he feels the benefits outweigh the temporary financial setback.
Specifically Johnson and music director Daniel Meyer have been impressed by the students' growth despite the rigors of a working tour. "The orchestra has developed over the course of the two weeks," he said. "They think less about the notes and more about the music."
" 'Bonding' is one of the benefits of touring," said Julia Kirchhausen, spokeswoman for the American Symphony Orchestra League. "It really does promote a sense of team when you travel as a unit, much like a sports team," she said. "It is a learning experience of being on top of your game when the conditions might not be ideal." Kirchhausen said that many youth symphonies tour. "It heightens the experience for them to be able to take the show on the road, it gives them exposure to different cultures and audiences [and] it exposes them to the realities of what it means to be a musician."
Thursday, the youth orchestra visited Prague's Rudolfinum, performing among other pieces a work by local composer David Stock ("Drive Time"). Sunday may have been the pinnacle of the tour, however: a performance in the Gewandhaus, the former stomping grounds of Felix Mendelssohn and one of the most acoustically brilliant halls around. "It was an amazing place to play because of the acoustics of the hall," said Johnson. "The orchestra could hear itself so well." The concert was in aid of the German Epilepsy Association and included Griffes' Poem for Flute and Orchestra. Flutist T. J. Wible soloed in the work, as he has three times on tour.
Taking busloads of teens to Europe can be a nightmare, but this group wasn't a problem, said Johnson, another reason he is advocating for a return trip. "It has been very safe. There have been minor illnesses and scrapes and headaches, nothing major." One close call came when a string player forgot his tuxedo pants and a chaperone had to run back to the hotel for them. "He got them just in time for the downbeat," said Johnson.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1750.