Traveling Through Europe with the Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony
If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Dortmund
It’s extremely weird to travel to eight cities in seventeen days: Birmingham, London, Paris (beloved Paris!), Geneva, Dortmund, Luxembourg, Prague (oh gorgeous Prague!) and Vienna.
|The astronomical clock in Prague|
Just back—and barely over my jetlag—the experience feels like a geographical cousin of channel-surfing: riveting and yet, in the end, leaving one more exhausted than enlightened or even entertained.
Before becoming a tag-along San Francisco Symphony wife, I always traveled with sustained intention, rarely to more than one place in a period of weeks or even months. More often than not engaged in research for a novel, I dug deep, doing my best to learn the language and the local ways. I made friends. I found keys that I never would have found if I’d been moving faster.
And so I couldn’t help but ask myself on this trip, How do they do it, year after year? How do these 100-plus musicians travel the earth in a well-organized pack, moving every couple of days—sometimes every day—to a new hotel in a different place, a new concert venue, a new audience desirous of emotional transport and a new phalanx of critics alert to any possible fault in their playing?
Some of the senior members of the orchestra have been touring now for going on forty years. They grew up on tour, many of them seeing the world for the first time. Twenty-something kids who may have had little or no experience of the high life found themselves suddenly confronted with the sophisticated ways taken for granted by people who stay in five-star hotels.
There’s a story about Doug Rioth, principal harp—a member of the Orchestra since 1981—who was astonished by the simultaneous delivery of seven room-service breakfasts on his first tour. In his attempt to write like a European, he turned his 1 on the order form into a 7 by putting a crossbar through it. (That’s seven room-service breakfasts that came out of his pocket.)
On her first Asian tour, in the 1980s, associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman— gracefully tall at five foot ten—walked into a restaurant with another member of the orchestra in Fukuoka, Japan. She wondered what everyone was laughing about and pointing at until she realized that they were laughing and pointing at her. The local people had simply never seen such a tall woman before (and certainly not one with a lamby cloud of long curly hair).
|The brand-new symphony hall in Birmingham, U.K.|
Bass player Charles Chandler and Assistant Principal Cello Amos Yang made a pact to stay fit together on this tour. Running 4 to 7 miles at a time, they had already logged 50 miles as we were leaving Dortmund for Luxembourg in a cold, drizzling rain. Yang, who has a 7- and a 9-year-old at home, joked that this was where he got all his exercise for the year. “Jogging on tour is almost like cheating, because everything is so fresh and new and interesting to look at.”
Not everyone left their families behind. Violinist Polina Sedukh traveled with her husband Shundo Ishi and their two-year-old daughter Saya. Sarn Oliver and Mariko Smiley, both in the first violin section, brought their 13-year-old son, Sean, along for the musical ride. True to his family’s mold, Sean was traveling with a practice cello that broke down into a viola-size carrying case that he carried with him everywhere.
In the days before 9/11, the players and supporting staff didn’t have to deal with schlepping their suitcases from place to place. The night before a departure, they simply put the valise outside their room and it was magically whisked away, just as magically reappearing in their room at the next hotel. On one of these tours, Ginny Lenz, a frequent sub in the viola section, had carefully packed her bag for pickup only to discover, the next morning, that she’d set out underwear and a top but no pants. In desperation she phoned the room of a fellow tall person in the section—Gina of the pyjama story—and told her sad tale. Gina went running out into whatever city it was to lickety-split buy a pair of pants for Ginny. At that time of the morning, she could only find sweatpants.
But my very favorite tour story involves a former personnel manager who stepped out of his room in his underwear to put his packed suitcase outside—and heard the sickening sound of the door locking shut behind him. Without his card key—without his pants—he started knocking on other doors down the hallway without any idea who was rooming where, whether he was going to be lucky enough to rouse a colleague or if his scantily clad appearance was apt to be grossly misinterpreted.
And so it was onward to the next train, bus or plane. The next country, the next elegant hotel—sweatpants or no pants!
|The Konzerthaus in Vienna|
It’s back to real life now for me.