Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra buckles down at home

No international tours until 2016, but planning starts now

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The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has just unpacked from its most recent European festivals tour, and it won't hit the international road again until 2016 -- the longest such hiatus in recent years.

Still, before the PSO even touched down at Pittsburgh International Airport on Sept. 15, plans were already in the works for its next European jaunt.

The various artistic, financial and logistical considerations of putting together an international orchestra tour demand such advance planning. The lead time often creates trends in orchestra touring as much as it reflects them. In past years, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance has even piggybacked on tours, marketing Western Pennsylvania to foreign companies, in a collaboration apparently unique to Pittsburgh.

In 2016, the PSO will return to Vienna, Austria, where it will play three concerts at the renowned Musikverein. Other possible locations include Paris; Berlin, Dresden and Munich, Germany; and Prague, Czech Republic, according to Robert Moir, senior vice president of artistic planning and audience engagement.

Though that tour is almost three years away, it makes for only a one-year break in fiscal years. This summer's tour was budgeted into the 2013-14 fiscal year, and the 2016 tour will factor into the 2015-16 numbers, technically leaving just 2014-15 without an international tour.

In the meantime, the PSO will stay local. It will play at the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall in New York in May 2014, and has been invited to perform at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 2014-15 year, Mr. Moir said.

It's the first time without international travel since 2007. Since Manfred Honeck became music director in 2008, the PSO has gone on six major international tours -- five to Europe and one to Asia -- and performed twice at the Lanaudiere Festival in Quebec, Canada.

The decision not to tour reflects an interest in buckling down on the PSO's budget. If the PSO balances its books by 2015 and then does so for three consecutive years, it becomes eligible for several million dollars in grants from the Heinz Endowments and the Simmons Family Foundation. By spending three years stateside, "we can focus all of our efforts [on] making sure the budget here in Pittsburgh is balanced," said Mr. Moir.

Given the PSO's flurry of tour activity, three years without international travel is not particularly long, according to Alexander Steinbeis, managing director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. It is unlikely to damage the PSO's stature abroad, he said.

"They've been doing more touring than many of their peer orchestras, anyway," he said.

The PSO keeps tabs on international locations. A public relations firm and tour booking agency, both based in Germany, do much of the leg work, as do the release of new PSO recordings. The orchestra's staff often travels abroad to keep presenters and agencies apprised of its work. Online streams of previous concerts on the Berlin Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall help keep the orchestra fresh in Europe.

"That is where our brand name resides when we're not abroad ourselves," said Mr. Moir.

Engaged deeply in host cities

For orchestras across the U.S., China has been a popular destination in recent years, according to Jesse Rosen, the president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a New York-based advocacy organization.

"There's this burgeoning focus in the country in Western classical music," Mr. Rosen said.

The PSO went to Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan in 2009, the first time it toured China since 1987 with Lorin Maazel.

Another trend is that orchestras engage more deeply with the locations in which they perform, rather than hopping between cities and cramming in as many concerts as possible, said Mr. Rosen. Many orchestras play a series of concerts in one location, known as residencies, which might also involve performances in schools or coachings with students at local conservatories. The PSO had a residency at the Musikverein at the center of its 2012 tour; another residency there in 2016 will form the core of that trip, Mr. Moir said.

"We are similarly trying to develop a multi-concert residency in at least one more of the cities on that tour," he said.

The decision to revisit Europe reflects the financial climate and the permanent draw of playing in some of the world's best halls.

"Over the years, there's been an ebb and flow in interest in Asia and South America," said Mr. Moir.

Those factors largely depend on the economies of those countries. The Japanese government, for example, used to subsidize concerts outside of Tokyo, but it doesn't anymore, Mr. Moir said.

"Asia is a huge market, but it doesn't have the same ... weight and priority as touring Europe. Touring Europe, performing in the great concert halls of Europe, playing for the fantastic audiences of Europe, these are the yardsticks by which orchestras tend to measure themselves," he said.

Finding the money

To pay for it all, the orchestra draws on foundation grants, fees from performances and corporate sponsorship. A large part of securing invitations to halls and festivals is negotiating concert fees, said Mr. Steinbeis. Altogether, that money foots the bill for what Mr. Moir estimated to be a roughly $1.5 million tour.

To secure corporate support, the PSO looks for companies that have an interest in both Pittsburgh and an international location -- such as world headquarters in one and a satellite office in the other. The PSO uses corporate sponsorship at home, too, and 31 companies varying in size sponsored programs and events last season.

On this past tour, the PSO was sponsored by BNY Mellon for concerts in Berlin and Frankfurt and by Lanxess Corp. for one concert in Bonn, Germany, according to Al Jacobsen, senior manager of corporate and tour sponsorship.

BNY Mellon and Credit Suisse also hosted receptions at concerts in Lucerne, Switzerland, though Credit Suisse was a sponsor of the festival rather than of the PSO. Events for sponsors included artist access with Mr. Honeck and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who performed with the orchestra.

The primary concern in touring is artistic. Still, "sometimes with our sponsors, because of our long-lasting relationships with them, we do ask them which cities interest them," Mr. Jacobsen said.

Pittsburgh Regional Alliance representatives have joined the PSO on tours since 2006, as a way of attracting business to the area, though due to scheduling conflicts no one from the organization joined the latest tour. Informational technology firm Sycor was one of the companies that the alliance met with on a PSO tour, and it ended up establishing its North American headquarters in Robinson.

The PRA's wooing efforts are "a long process. Our tours are a piece of that process," Mr. Jacobsen said.

Still, the orchestra's role in the PRA's courtship rituals is unusual.

"I think Pittsburgh is kind of unique that way. There may be others that do that. I'm not aware of them," said Mr. Rosen.

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Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG. Measured Words blog at www.post-gazette.com/measuredwords. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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