Global Tours Were Key for Orchestras. Then the Pandemic Hit.

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For much of the pandemic, the Vienna Philharmonic, mustering its wealth and brand name, was one of the few orchestras to succeed in outmaneuvering the coronavirus. The ensemble pushed forward with tours of Japan, South Korea, Egypt and Italy, even as the virus paralyzed much of the classical music industry.

Then, just as the orchestra was ringing in 2022 with its signature concerts filled with waltzes, the Omicron variant surged. By late January, several dozen players had tested positive for the virus, forcing the cancellation of a three-city tour in France and Germany. Earlier this month, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who was set to tour with the ensemble, also tested positive, throwing the orchestra’s plans into disarray.

“Everything is very unpredictable,” Daniel Froschauer, the Philharmonic’s chairman, said in an interview. “We feel we have to fight for our music.”

The experience of the Philharmonic, which is set to return to Carnegie Hall this week for the first time in three years, underscores the challenges facing even the most nimble, well-funded ensembles as they seek a return to the international concert circuit, a critical part of the classical music ecosystem.

Coronavirus infections have declined substantially around the world in recent weeks, providing a glimmer of hope that touring can soon bounce back. Some ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, are pushing forward with engagements in Europe in the coming months, their first overseas trips since before the pandemic.

But significant challenges remain. Orchestras still face the possibility of disruption by future waves of the virus, making planning difficult. In some bustling international markets, including China, quarantine rules are so strict that tours are nearly impossible.

And the ongoing financial turmoil of the pandemic, which devastated cultural institutions, has raised fresh questions about the value of touring, at a time when many groups are grappling with tepid ticket sales at home and an uncertain budgetary outlook. The Minnesota Orchestra, which had been planning tours of Vietnam and South Korea before the pandemic, said it had no plans for trips abroad in the near future. A spokeswoman for the orchestra called the decision a “strategic and philosophical choice to focus on our own city and state in the immediate post-pandemic period.”

Simon Woods, the president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, said he believed the classical touring industry was resilient and would endure. But he added that some ensembles were re-evaluating the costs of touring amid the pandemic, especially given that “the Covid situation could upend their plans at any time and put the steep financial investment at risk.”

“Many orchestras are coming out of the pandemic having depleted their reserves,” Woods said. “They are asking, ‘Is this the right use of money?’”

Orchestra tours have been a staple of classical music going back decades, when the biggest ensembles in the United States and Europe began leading whistle-stop visits to global capitals. Tours then served not just artistic purposes but also commercial ends, giving orchestras exposure to new markets and, occasionally, lucrative sponsorships.

Tours are no longer the moneymakers they used to be, except for a small number of elite ensembles like the Viennese. (Carnegie paid the Philharmonic $1.4 million for four 2019 performances, according to public filings.) But they bestow international prestige on orchestras — an attractive prospect for donors — and give ensembles an opportunity to build cohesion.

All that came to a halt at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, when classical touring was one of the first industries to shut down. The pandemic resurfaced questions about the value of the traditional model of touring. Some players and administrators raised concerns about the time, energy and money invested in tours and the fund-raising leading up to them, with seemingly little in the way of lasting impact. Others worried about the substantial carbon emissions involved in large-scale travel. Tours can involve groups of as many as 100 musicians and staff members, not to mention instruments.

Some groups, including the New York Philharmonic — a regular on the global circuit, visiting more than 400 cities in over 60 countries in its history — started experimenting with residencies even before the pandemic. Instead of frenzied continental tours, the Philharmonic has tried forging longer-term partnerships in a smaller number of places, including Shanghai, where its musicians traveled regularly before the virus hit.

Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, said the orchestra was still open to large-scale tours. But, citing climate change and other concerns, she said it was time to reconsider the status quo.

“I am not convinced that we should return to the model of touring as it was in the old days,” she said. “I’m not sure that you can really achieve deep artistic programs through it on a regular basis.”

The London Symphony Orchestra said that Britain’s split from the European Union’s regulatory orbit had created delays at borders and resulted in additional coronavirus screening procedures, impairing its ability to tour. The ensemble is lobbying the British government to ease bureaucratic barriers related to touring to European countries. And because of continuing limits on the size of audiences in some countries, the orchestra has had to cancel some concerts because they would not generate enough revenue.

“We are managing our way through this and the demand from promoters across Europe is as strong as ever,” said Kathryn McDowell, the managing director of the orchestra, which is planning a tour to California in March.

For international ensembles seeking to tour in the United States, there are also obstacles. (The Vienna Philharmonic, which begins a three-performance stand at Carnegie on Friday, will be the second overseas ensemble to perform at the hall since the beginning of the pandemic; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London appeared at Carnegie late last month.) During the pandemic, dozens of artists were unable to secure visas amid a long backlog of applications at American embassies and consulates, resulting in a wave of cancellations. While the backlog has eased considerably in recent months, there are still delays.

Brian Goldstein, a lawyer who represents artists, said some European ensembles were paring down the number of musicians who participate in tours, or canceling outright, after encountering difficulties getting interview appointments for visa applications.

“This situation has, indeed, improved,” Goldstein said, “but there still remain significant delays and backlogs at U.S. consulates, particularly for large groups such as orchestras.”

Asia used to be a popular market, particularly for American and European groups. But more than two years into the pandemic, several Asian countries remain almost entirely closed to artists from abroad.

In China, the largest market, which used to host dozens of traveling artists and ensembles each year, the authorities have yet to relax Covid restrictions, which mandate quarantines of at least two weeks for visitors. The time and money required to isolate makes touring in the country unfeasible, even for those who can get visas.

Analysts do not expect China to substantially ease its “zero Covid” policy until after an important Communist Party meeting this fall, making tours unlikely until at least 2023. While Chinese concert halls and presenters seem eager for international artists, managers say, the quarantine rules have proved to be a roadblock.

“They’re all ready to grab whatever we have to offer,” said Wray Armstrong, who runs a music agency in Beijing. “All we have to do is try to hang in there and don’t give up hope.”

The Vienna Philharmonic said that Gergiev had recovered from the virus, and that he would lead the orchestra in the Carnegie shows. His appearance has raised another complication for the ensemble: Gergiev is a friend of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has in recent days been widely condemned for his moves against Ukraine. Gergiev has previously offered support for Putin’s policies, attracting vocal protests during past appearances in New York; activists are organizing protests at the Carnegie concerts this week.

Gergiev did not respond to requests for comment through his representatives. Froschauer, a violinist who serves as the orchestra’s chairman, defended the appearance, calling Gergiev a gifted artist.

“He’s going as a performer, not a politician,” Froschauer said. “We are not politicians. We’re trying to build bridges.”

The orchestra’s roughly 100 touring musicians, who are tested every day for the virus, have been wearing masks at rehearsals and some performances. The ensemble has tapped into its large network of players to avoid cancellations, pulling in last-minute substitutes for infected musicians. The orchestra travels on a private plane.

Froschauer said the orchestra would not let the virus get in the way of performing.

“These experiences are so much more intense than they were before; it’s part of history,” he said. “The musicians will do whatever it takes to play in New York. They know we are on a mission for music.”