Touring Asia as a member of one of the world’s top orchestras seems like a pretty sweet deal: fly to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo. Eat great food. Stay in nice hotels. And get paid.
But being an orchestra member on tour also means being ready to perform at the highest level, at every concert, no matter where you are. Or what time your body thinks it is.
Philharmonic violinist Elizabeth Baker says "jet lag can be hard to overcome in those first few concerts." She has played with the orchestra since 1987, spanning from the Esa-Pekka Salonen days to current artistic and music director Gustavo Dudamel.
"I have a memory of a tour that started in Asia with Esa-Pekka," Baker says. "The last piece on the program was 'Bolero.' This is when I realized that conductors also can suffer from jet lag. We started at a slower tempo than normal. Esa-Pekka had a tendency to draw things out a little bit as the end approached. Except that it was getting more and more and more drawn out. I think it was, for me, the slowest 'Bolero' on record.
Jet lag isn't the only physical complaint on tour. Andrew Wachtel is the L.A Phil’s physician. He travels with the orchestra.
"It’s common for people to get food poisoning when they’re traveling," Wachtel says. "If you’re performing something like [Mahler's Sixth Symphony], which is almost an hour-and-a-half, and you’re having food poisoning and you have to possibly have to run to the bathroom or be nauseous in the middle of it, it’s a bit awkward. Where are you gonna go in the middle of the stage? We have a lot of Pepto Bismol and they have to make sure they’re feeling like they can perform, or sometimes they can’t perform that night.
Principal oboist Ariana Ghez was one of many Philharmonic musicians who fell ill in Caracas three years ago. She had to miss a concert: "When we went down to Venezuela, a third of the orchestra got really sick."
Elizabeth Baker says that in many cases musicians will go on even if they’re not feeling well. Sometimes the performance depends on it: "If you’re a solo woodwind player, for example, if you have a solo and you have a fever and feel pretty bad, you still have to go out there and do it.
Life on the road presents specific challenges for instruments as well as people. Musicians who play reed instruments such as the oboe and bassoon need to be aware of changes in humidity and altitude. Again, oboist Ariana Ghez: "I make sure I know if there’s a city with a high altitude. We have to make our instruments for whatever space and climate we’re in."
There’s also the issue of adapting to new concert halls in each city. Assistant conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla serves as the ears of the orchestra during quick acoustic rehearsals in each new venue.
Grazinyte-Tyla says the concert hall in Seoul was very “bright,” so the orchestra had to play more softly there. Otherwise, aside from severe jet lag, this tour was fairly smooth.
But with all of these potential difficulties — and the huge effort and expense required in transporting the orchestra — why tour at all? Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the L.A. Philharmonic, says it’s partly about visibility, but also about the music. She says that facing all these difficulties is actually good for the orchestra.
"It’s a kind of crucible that the orchestra goes through," Borda says. "And the more you do that, the greater the orchestra grows to be."
The musicians agree. Those very hardships, and the mutual effort to cope with them, form bonds that might not exist otherwise. Tom Hooten plays principal trumpet for the Philharmonic.
"Last night, for hours, we sat and talked about our personal lives," Hooten says. "For me it creates a better environment to make great music onstage.
Joanne Pearce Martin is the Philharmonic’s keyboardist, playing piano on this tour. She says there's something particularly valuable for the musicians getting out of Los Angeles: "We’re such a car culture. We play our concerts and then we get in 80 different cars and go to our homes. We don’t often have the time or energy left to go out and socialize. When you're on tour and you’re sitting on airplanes, it’s a lovely time to get to know your colleagues."