Curtis Orchestra is off to Europe, with us on their tail

Members of the Curtis Institute Student Orchestra stream out of Lenfest Hall on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, to board the buses that will take them to JFK Airport and a flight to Finland where they will begin their European tour. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

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 repertoire will be classic showcase fare — Richard Strauss’ super-sumptuous tone poem Ein Heldenleben, with Adagio for Strings by Curtis graduate Samuel Barber for an encore. “It’s going to show what a strong and important music school Curtis is. That’s the most important thing about this tour,” said guest conductor Osmo Vänskä, who cleared his busy schedule to lead the Curtis tour.

Known for his high-motivation results with musicians, the Minnesota Orchestra music director had guest-conducted the Curtis orchestra three years ago, and the eagerness to have him back was among several catalysts for the tour — the orchestra’s first multicity European sojourn since 1999 (with Anne-Sophie Mutter and André Previn). It’s a major effort involving two-thirds of the student body — 112 in the orchestra and 16 staff — all costing roughly $1 million.

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.

Visiting major capitals is a priority. “We said from the very beginning that we don’t want to go to this huge effort and end up playing in places nobody has heard of,” said Diaz. (And if you haven’t heard of Luslawice, it’s the home of the European Krzysztof Penderecki Center for Music, east of Krakow.)

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.

The hallmark of these tours is the freshness that young musicians bring to the music-making, coupled with a high technical standard. Even Adagio for Strings, one of the best-known pieces in the orchestra repertoire, is reportedly getting exceptional rehearsal time. As widely heard as the piece is, Vänskä loves it and has played it as an encore in his native Finland: “Someone said, a long time ago, that when the words are finished, the music starts, because music goes much deeper.”

The aim of a tour isn’t just to be consistently excellent, said Diaz, but to have a continually evolving viewpoint of the music at hand. So, on many levels — from the artistic to the logistical — the Curtis musicians will come back changed. In the controlled, meticulously precise world of the emerging young world-class musician, where life is mapped out years in advance, they’ll meet daily circumstances they can never anticipate.

Continue Reading