Music on the move: Transporting PSO is like maneuvering an army

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
John Karapandi, stage tech for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, checks the containers used to ship bass instruments at Heinz Hall on Aug. 17.
By Andrew Druckenbrod
Pittburgh Post-Gazette

DUBLIN, Ireland -- An ear-piercing, grating noise fills the air on an otherwise pristine Sunday morning here. Not even John Cage dreamed of a violin making this sort of sound, a dull but loud clamor. But he would still call it music, and in more than the aesthetic sense of a radical composer, he would be correct.

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Listen in:
The PSO's head stage tech John Karapandi talks backstage with Paul Hunt, manager of Dublin's National Concert Hall.
On the stage in Dublin, stagehand Ronald "Rocky" Esposito explains how the National Concert Hall's relatively small size requires a little improvisation.
National Concert Hall stage manager Paul Hunt talks with the PG's Andrew Druckenbrod.
Workers at the National Concert Hall unloading the PSO's equipment early on the morning of the first Dublin concert.
Interactive map
See the PSO's 2006 European Tour | View the tour in a popup window
Previous coverage
PSO players find Dublin an enticing city to visit
PSO plays all-American program in Dublin concert
Classical music in the land of the classics (8/26/06)
PSO touches down in Greece to kick off tour (8/25/06)
European tour connects PSO to new audiences (8/20/06)
Music Preview: Slatkin saves the day / Conductor is once again there when the PSO needs him (8/17/06)    

It's the sound of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's instruments being unloaded for a set of concerts in Dublin Sunday and Monday at Ireland's National Concert Hall as part of its 2006 European Tour.

The reverberation of cargo cases being dragged off a truck and into backstage is music to the ears of the men and women charged with running the tour within the tour: the immense task of moving hundreds of instruments and equipment to concert halls all across the world. Getting invited to play the world's top halls is one thing; transporting a major symphony orchestra is something else.

"I would liken it to moving an army," says John Karapandi, the PSO's head tour technician since 1981. "On a smaller scale, of course, but we have the troops and we have the supplies. It is very complex"

The PSO's European tour consists of 104 musicians, about 70 family members and support staff, 220 suitcases and 88 cargo containers. The containers total about 16 tons and are valued at $5 million. They contain everything from snare drums to string basses, from musicians' concert dress to the conductor's podium -- although, thankfully, no piano. While the musicians make the headlines, the safe passage of the cargo is unsung. Yet its odyssey is just as crucial for every traveling orchestra.

Since 9/11 and even more so after revelations of the recent alleged terror plot to blow up airplanes flying from London, cargo transport has posed more concerns for musicians now faced with the possibility of not being able to carry their expensive instruments onboard a plane. The cargo area is the viable option that all but guarantees their instruments will get to the next stop.

Need for speed

Symphony cargo tends to resemble the orchestra itself. The music freight has its own management (Genevieve Twomey and Marcie Solomon at the PSO), and its own trio of conductors (Karapandi, Rocky Esposito and Jim Petri). Like fine instruments, cargo cases are custom-made in Europe -- the PSO's by the renowned Paul Gerstbauer shop in Vienna.

The payload also has its own itinerary, flying from Toronto to Rome to Athens to begin the tour, while the musicians flew through Frankfurt. The cargo has its own seating arrangement, with each case holding multiple instruments stacked like a Tetris game on pallets loaded into the plane. It also has its own strict program -- an important customs document called the carnet that is as strictly adhered to as any concert personnel chart.

And, as seen in the brisk pace the loaders maintained on this tour, the quick setup and break down before and after each concert is a performance unto itself, allegro.

"We tell the crew the timpani are ready, take the timps down while we are packing things so the truck is already being loaded," says Karapandi of a typical hectic load up immediately after a concert. "I run down and say, 'What do you have on so far?' Then I will go back upstairs."

Like a conductor working from memory, he carries his checklist of the instruments in "my brain" for these frantic times. "We haven't left anything behind yet, but I am sure it will happen at some point."

There's also a rhythm to transporting the cargo. "We will load in, set up, do the concert. [Then] we will do everything in reverse."

Eating? Fast food is hardly fast enough for these guys. "A lot of times we just get [meals] on the run."

"Pretty much in every tour there is always something," Karapandi muses.

Sunday morning, that something is the size of the stage of the National Concert Hall. Not only is it relatively small, but one of the pieces to be performed -- Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" -- contains a large percussion corps.

"We have to strike a lot of the risers because there is no room for the percussion," says stagehand Esposito.

Decisions are made fast, and within an hour the stage is set for rehearsal later in the morning. It will have to be rearranged again for the evening concert.

The art of packing

No musical performance is complete without critics, and Karapandi and his movers have theirs, too: customs agents. They can make classical music critics seem as soft as a cushion.

"You have to be cool with custom agents; you do what they say," says Karapandi. "They can shut down everything. They don't care if you are anybody; it is their territory. If they say, 'I want to check everything and it is going to take three days, it is going to take three days.' "

Typically, agents just spot-check the cargo; they are interested more in import/export issues than security when it comes to a company like a symphony orchestra. "If an instrument is missing, it could have been sold in that country," says Solomon, PSO operations manager.

More often than not, a spot-check will include the bass drum.

"I don't know why they always want to check out the bass drum," Karapandi says. "We [take] it out and hit it for them and that [makes] them happy."

But then there are the few times in tours past when the PSO has been asked to open every cargo unit. Luckily for the Pittsburgh group, it has an industry-low amount of cargo. Orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic travel with more cargo.

The Chicago orchestra is another case in point. For its European tour last year, the orchestra required 287 trunks weighing 20 tons that required two semi-trucks to haul.

"We have a bit of a reputation for being one of the heaviest orchestras touring," admits Heidi Lucas, its director of operations. "Half of the musicians have an individual steamer trunk, half are in two-person trunks. Right now we are in the process of designing two-person [trunks] so we can be way more efficient."

The New York Philharmonic, one of the most traveled orchestras in America, also motors about with trunks. "The operation is about as cost-efficient as it can be," says spokesman Eric Latsky. "But it is an expensive and highly detailed enterprise."

The PSO usually requires only one truck to haul its cargo, due to its use of multiple-musician wardrobe containers and by having the airlines transport personal luggage in suitcases it provides. "We can fit 10-12 wardrobe bags in a box, where before you had 12 steamer trunks," says Karapandi.

"We have a reputation for traveling on the cheap," says Twomey, PSO general manager. "We take great pride in it."

Battle scars

If moving an orchestra is akin to maneuvering a small army, there are bound to be good war stories. About the most disastrous happened to the Chicago Symphony. During a West Coast swing in the 1980s, a transport truck full of double basses turned over on a highway, severely damaging the instruments. Lucas wasn't there, but she says the incident is legendary within the orchestra ranks.

"It was horrible carnage, twisted strings and pieces of wood on the side of the road."

Because of that, the orchestra now operates with separate touring basses, different than what they use at home.

The Pittsburgh Symphony has been far luckier. Once a bassist (seemingly often in the middle of incidents because of the size of the instrument) forgot to strap his bass into its special container, which resembles a coffin -- a large, aluminum coffin.

"Theoretically, they are supposed to air-ride inside the case; the only thing touching is ... the straps and at the bottom. There is space everywhere else, so if you hit it, it will absorb it and not go into the instrument," Karapandi said.

With the bass not strapped in, it rested against a piece of metal that vibrated so much, it wore a hole through the back of the bass.

"It was in Copenhagen," says Karapandi. "We had [to] take it on a truck and ship it somewhere to get it fixed."

The ultimate, of course, is if the instruments don't arrive.

When the stagehands are loading up the cargo in an old Russian Antonov, a propeller freighter plane, as they did from Greece to Dublin on this tour, they do sweat a bit. Luckily, the PSO has never had this happen, although it's come quite close.

"We had one tour, at the Edinburgh Festival, when the cargo came through London," recalls Karapandi. "[But] the truck arrived late. We were probably about eight hours behind schedule."

Making matters worse, Madonna was giving a concert in town, delaying the trucks departure to Scotland in wall-to-wall traffic. The truck finally arrived at the hall, only an hour or so before the performance.

"Our management helped us unload the truck. We were unloading the truck just to get it in so the guys could start warming up. We were really strapped."

Mostly, it is passports that plague the cargo staff. They get left in the instrument cases that go in the cargo, or in musician's concert clothes. Ideally, once a case is closed and locked, it is not to be opened before it reaches its expected destination. But exceptions are made.

"If 15 minutes later a fiddle player comes running back and says my passport is in my violin case, we will open the trunk and give him his passport, clearly," Solomon says.

At the end of the day, the role of the cargo transport is more than just moving a bevy of instruments. It is designed to take that aspect of touring off the minds of the performers.

"We reduce their stress in service of their ability to do their job," Solomon says.

For these PSO movers and packers, perhaps the only relaxing moment is when the Pittsburgh Symphony musicians are seated on stages across Europe, making beautiful sounds.

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750.


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