by Susanne Park
It can be a fine line between giving our readers a look backstage and whining. We musicians get asked lots of questions, and non-musicians frequently are surprised to learn various facts of life for professional musicians — how much work it takes, how much our instruments cost — but because the answer can seem insane to a non-musician (Any idea how much a bassoon costs? Think Tesla Model S.) it sometimes sounds like a complaint. It’s usually not a complaint, it just is what it is. With that in mind, since we often get asked about touring, and since we’re going to Europe in October, it seems appropriate to write about it.
Going on tour, like being a member of the PSO, is exciting. And challenging. Whether we’re talking about Mozart or Paganini or The Rolling Stones or a major symphony, going on tour is both evidence of the artist’s greatness and what makes the artist great. The most successful artists throughout history have cultivated audiences outside of their immediate home base; in fact, it could be said that touring is what separates a prestigious organisation from a minor one. Pittsburgh has long celebrated its artistic wealth at home while also taking great pride in the attention garnered by this orchestra on the world stage.
In October, we will head to Europe for the 25th time in our orchestra’s history, performing in some of the world’s most venerated music halls, including the Philharmonie (Berlin), the Musikverein (Vienna), and the Royal Concertgebouw (Amsterdam). Other highlights include debuts at new halls in Paris (the remarkable Philharmonie de Paris) and Hamburg (the stunning Elbphilharmonie), as well as returns to familiar and beloved venues elsewhere in Europe. It is a great privilege to play in an orchestra that is celebrated worldwide, and going on tour is one of the most exhilarating and artistically rewarding experiences you can have as a musician.
Now, the salient facts. We take commercial airlines to Europe, usually splitting the group between two flights. In addition to the musicians, we travel with administrative staff members, stage crew, travel agency personnel, security, a doctor, and guests. We have a day off upon arrival.
On tour, each week includes one day off and one day with travel but no concert. The day off we get to rest. The remaining days have both travel and a concert and are governed by the three hours we must have between arrival at the hotel and departure for the hall. Between cities, we travel by plane, train, or bus, whichever one will most efficiently get us to the next hotel with three hours to eat and rest before the concert. Travel can be chaotic, but we work with a travel company that specialises in orchestral tours, so things generally progress smoothly, and our management team of Tabitha Mae Pfleger and Harrison Mullins do their best to make things easy for us because they know that at the end of the day we have to play a concert. They will put us on trains if possible because European high-speed trains are comfortable and fast, but trains are more expensive than buses, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to get to the next city too quickly because the hotel rooms won’t be ready. If the distance is too great for bus or train we’ll fly, which is still a long day by the time we’ve bussed to the airport, stood in various lines, flown, and bussed to the hotel. It’s always going to be a long day of travel, but an even longer day is what our stage crew does, packing all of the instrument trunks and gear into the truck and driving through the night to the next city.
So, after a day of travel, we arrive at the hotel. Rooms may or may not be ready, but in any case musicians scatter to find food. European restaurants don’t typically serve all day menus, so our best bet is to find a grocery store or shopping mall food court. Some of the more ambitious (or younger) musicians might opt for a quick hour of sightseeing, but most of us try to take a nap so that we’re rested for the concert. Hopefully that nap is in a hotel room and not on a sofa in the lobby, but sometimes necessity compels. We have three hours, the clock is ticking.
Buses take us to the hall for a short acoustic rehearsal, and then we generally have an hour before downbeat to get dressed, find coffee, and practice onstage.
After the performance, it’s a mad dash to get out of sweaty gowns and tails (not all European halls have AC) so that we can relax a bit, perhaps see friends who live in that city and came to the show, or head to the hotel lobby bar for a quick nightcap. Next morning, it’s an early start, and we do it all over again.
Over the course of a tour, there are highs (moments of exquisite musical beauty, cheering crowds, making new friends abroad) and lows (exhaustion, sickness, occasional crankiness), but overall, touring is one of the great joys of doing what we do: connecting people through the transformative power of music. We love serving as cultural ambassadors for Pittsburgh throughout the world.