The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s concert last Friday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall featured John Adams’ film music-inspired composition, “City Noir,” along with Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. It was the final concert before the orchestra's March 16 departure for Asia that includes stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo.
While music director Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra filled the hall with sound, the wide hallways backstage were lined with enormous metal cases, awaiting the instruments to be packed immediately after the concert.
Within hours, over 100 trunks — containing everything from piccolos to harps, kettle drums and double basses — will be muscled into a huge semi, and then driven to LAX to be loaded onto a cargo plane.
“These instrument cases will be loaded like a Jenga game and then put on a pallet,” says Chris Still, who plays second trumpet in the Philharmonic. “It’ll be weighed. It’ll be checked in. Every case has a specific number."
Still’s workday ended at intermission, so he got a head start loading his concert wardrobe into the trunk he’ll share with a few other musicians.
Anything that Still leaves out now won’t make the trip, so he’s double- and triple-checking everything in his wardrobe trunk. “Tail shirts, toothbrush, some snacks, extra socks, electric razor,” he says.
And then there's the trunk for his trumpet. Most instruments will travel between cities on a climate-controlled cargo plane, Still says, but not all of them.
“Some of the cellos that belong in this orchestra are worth more than the plane,” he says. “So those are hand-carried and never let out of the sight of the musicians.”
Prepping the tour
Taylor Saleeby, senior concert operations manager for the Philharmonic, says the tour party is 213 people — that number includes 123 musicians, along with management, staff, stage crew, spouses, children and about 25 patrons.
Saleeby’s been working on putting this tour together for a year now. The planning included an advance visit to all the tour stops. It all kicked into high gear months ago, when musicians filled out forms listing their specific travel needs.
“Some people need to sit on an aisle in an airplane,” Saleeby says. “Some people need a kosher meal. Some people can’t be near an elevator in a hotel room because they’re light sleepers and they need to be well rested for the concerts.”
Chris Ayzoukian, vice president of production for the Philharmonic, says the crew is under immense pressure, going from one city to the next, loading out of a performance and playing rehearsals in unfamiliar halls.
“It’s like in sports where you’re playing an away game where you come in, you shoot around for a little bit and there you go, you’re in front of thousands of people,” Ayzoukian says.
He says tours like this are sketched out years in advance. He’s already finalizing the contracts for next year’s tour, which will be a return to Europe. And he’s working on what comes after that.
Whalebone and other travel restrictions
A new challenge for touring orchestras is the stepped-up enforcement of prohibitions against transporting products made from endangered animals and plants — some of which are traditionally used in stringed instruments and bassoons.
“There are five materials specifically,” Saleeby says. “Brazilian rosewood, Monitor lizard, African ivory. Mother of pearl is a different classification that also needs to be documented. There’s also whalebone. Instruments that contain whalebone will not be allowed to re-enter the country, even if the whalebone was harvested many, many years ago.”
Some bows, Saleeby says, contain whalebone and skin from monitor lizards.
'Waiting for this day'
As the concert ends, the choral hall fills with musicians swiftly packing up their instruments and their performance wardrobes.
Violinist Bing Wang is the orchestra's associate concertmaster. As a Shanghai native she’s especially looking forward to the orchestra’s first-ever visit to mainland China. It’s also the orchestra’s first tour to Asia under Gustavo Dudamel.
“I’ve been waiting for this day and so have the Chinese audiences been waiting for this day," Wang says. "Who can resist Gustavo’s charisma? They just cannot wait for him to be there with his own band.”
Violinists have the option of taking their instruments on board but Wang is choosing to pack hers anyway.
“I had a minor accident in the past where the case fell out when someone opened the compartment, and I freaked out,” she recalls. “From then on, I almost feel safer having it travel in the trunk because having it fall out of the compartment was a horrific experience for me.”
Even with brisk sales of tickets and CDs, taking a big orchestra around the world is logistically and economically prohibitive. So why do it? What’s the goal of a tour like this?
“We assess the success of a tour in a couple of ways,” Ayzoukian says. “The most important way is artistically — has the orchestra grown? You can really sense it when the orchestra comes back and is playing a different way as an ensemble.”
Still says orchestra members learn a lot about each other during the tour — for better or worse.
“You learn who gets up at 5 a.m. to exercise, you learn who likes to be alone to read, you learn who eats a lot of sugar," Still says. "You know everything about these people by the end of the tour. It makes us a better orchestra."
This story has been updated.