The Curtis Symphony Orchestra doesn't know what it's in for. The players were warned about the rigors of jumping from one European city to another before departing Wednesday on their nine-city tour, now underway in Helsinki and going on to Bremen, Berlin, Dresden, London, Salzburg,Vienna, and the Polish towns Wroclaw, and Luslawice.
But being warned about the rigors of touring and experiencing them are different things. "It looks great on paper, but actually doing it is really, really hard work," said Curtis president and violist Roberto Diaz. "Preparing for events like this is a huge part of their educations — the wonderful things, the difficult things, the hall changes, the time changes, the routine of travel and play, travel and play. …"
How that all shakes out will be revealed in stories that I'll report starting Tuesday from Berlin, Dresden, and London before connecting with the Philadelphia Orchestra's 18-musician delegation to Mongolia the following week.
The Curtis tour is a somewhat different ball game from a Philadelphia Orchestra tour. The choice of soloists for example: The Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 will be played by the well-seasoned Peter Serkin, one of the finest pianists to come out of Curtis, as opposed to somebody flashier, such as Lang Lang, who attracts fans who want to see only him. The Curtis commitment to contemporary music is evident in Penderecki's Concerto Doppio featuring violinist Benjamin Schmid (a Curtis grad) and Diaz on viola. (Krzysztof Penderecki, 83, is expected to attend the Poland performances.) The hotels are three- to four-star rather than five-star, and the musicians are staying two to a room.
With the well-connected concert agency Harrison Parrott organizing the tour, some dates fell into place easily. The Helsinki Music Centre has all manner of academic institutions — and one of the target audiences for this tour is the university crowd. In London, both the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall were booked with their own resident ensembles, leaving Cadogan Hall in the posh Belgravia district of London. During the summertime Salzburg Festival, the Curtis orchestra would fill the Grosse Festspielhaus. But in May, it's going to be shoehorned into the Mozarteum, one of the more famous halls in Europe, but for chamber music.
"It's going to be cozy," said Viola Frankenfeld, associate director of tours and projects at the Munich office of Harrison Parrott, who compares the hall to a doll's house. "We've been there, we've inspected the hall, and I think the stage manager had a mini heart attack. We'll do it somehow."
"I don't mind if the orchestra overpowers a hall a bit," Diaz said. "Let the orchestra's enthusiasm rattle the chandeliers."
Though the Curtis Institute is well-known internationally, the orchestra doesn't make commercial recordings and is an unproven box office entity. Yet the Berlin Konzerthaus date sold 500 tickets in the first week, partly because the local presenter is experienced at showcasing young artists and has an audience following that loves them.
Ticket prices on the entire tour are low — $20 to $30 — in contrast to $120 charged by major touring orchestras. The Dresden concert is part of the Dresden Music Festival, whose profile has risen considerably under the directorship of cellist Jan Vogler, who has presented the Philadelphia Orchestra several times. That venue is the opposite of Salzburg — the hulking, Soviet-era Kulturpalast, though in radically remodeled form.