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Cleveland's Ambassadors in New York and Europe

Percussionist Richard Weiner was not with The Cleveland Orchestra long before he discovered what a powerful cultural emissary it could be in remote corners of the world.

The year was 1965, the height of the Cold War.  Weiner, who joined the Orchestra in 1963, was on his first international tour – to the Soviet Union.  The ensemble was traveling under the watchful eye of the State Department and, once they arrived, Soviet minders who accompanied them everywhere.  That did not prevent Weiner from making personal connections.

“I was young and fairly brash, and I had conversations with a lot of people who spoke broken English,” he says.  “I found that generally speaking, they liked Americans.  They would say, ʻWe donʼt like your government, but we love the American people!ʼ”

So much so that Weiner and a handful of other players were invited to join their Russian counterparts for some jazz gigs.

“Most of them were underground, in places where we were not allowed to speak English because they were afraid of the repercussions of having Americans in the building,” he says. “But some were sanctioned. One evening, a number of us played a date at a young communist club. When we got back to the U.S., I picked up a copy of Soviet Life off the newsstand, and there were photographs of us playing at that club. It was a wonderful experience.”

International relations may have thawed, but The Cleveland Orchestraʼs role as a global ambassador for Northeast Ohio is stronger than ever.

“When you go overseas, people donʼt know the Cleveland Indians or Browns or Cavaliers,” Weiner notes. “But they know the Cleveland Orchestra.  Weʼre very aware of the effect we have on Clevelandʼs stature around the world.”

“The Cleveland Orchestra is one of our region’s greatest ambassadors,” says Orchestra Trustee and Cleveland+ CEO Thomas Waltermire.  “It is an internationally recognized symbol of excellence that reaches millions of people through its performances, broadcasts and recordings. I often meet people from across the nation and around the world who have a positive opinion of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio because of their exposure to the Orchestra.  We’re privileged to have such a great organization representing Northeast Ohio.”

The Orchestra is embarking on another tour in November that will take it to Hamburg, Frankfurt, Paris, Luxembourg, Cologne, Vienna and Linz, friendly places where it has played before – in some cases, quite often.  Going back to 1957, it has performed in Paris 15 times and Vienna 40 times.  For the staffers who run the tours, though, that doesn’t make life any easier.

“Touring is definitely not for everybody,” says director of operations Julie Kim.  “After a 10-hour flight with jet lag, you have to be ready to work as soon as you unfasten your seat belt.  We don’t sleep very much.  And one of the first things I ever learned about touring is to always eat breakfast, no matter what.  Because it may be the only meal you have that day.”

Planning for tours typically begins a year or two in advance, with an anchor schedule in major cultural hubs like Vienna and Paris, and open dates filled in gradually with concerts in smaller cities.  Kim and her colleagues, Orchestra operations manager Amy Gill and stage manager Joe Short, arrange everything from airline and hotel reservations to the logistics of moving instrument and wardrobe trunks between cities and in and out of concert halls.  Their goal is to achieve what Kim calls “the Cleveland Orchestra standard.”

“The musicians should not have to think about anything other than being prepared to perform at rehearsals and concerts,” she says.  “If they have no idea what it took to get them to a specific concert venue, then we’ve done our jobs well.”

This can be a lot trickier than it sounds.  The Cleveland Orchestra travels with more than 100 trunks which are stacked on pallets and shrink-wrapped for shipment on air cargo flights overseas, then hauled by truck between cities.  Kim has heard every horror story imaginable – orchestra trunks being bumped from a flight to make room for a shipment of live lobster, or left out on the tarmac in the pouring rain, or not fitting in the freight elevator at the concert hall. Fortunately, there have been no such incidents during her four-year tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra, largely because of the advance planning she and her staff do.

“In the rare situation when we go to a city or concert hall that is new to us, we typically do a site visit in advance to evaluate the venue and the feasibility of loading things in and out,” she says.  “Customs usually aren’t a problem, although we are a little concerned now about a new U.S. government regulation protecting endangered species that might prevent string instruments made of a certain kind of wood from leaving the country.”

Moving people around poses a more formidable challenge.

“It’s like herding fish,” says bass player Scott Haigh, who has been traveling with the Orchestra since 1978.  “Most people are responsible enough to be at a certain place at a certain time, but once in a while somebody wanders off.”

This is possible because members of The Cleveland Orchestra have the option of making their own travel arrangements apart from the group.  That’s a luxury for the players, particularly if they want to bring family members along.  But it complicates life for Kim and her staff, who are already juggling multiple itineraries for the cargo, musicians and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst.  So they ask all the players to fill out a detailed form showing which legs of the trip they will travel on their own, and which with the group.

“What you don’t want is for a musician to show up at the airport and say, ʻI thought I was traveling with the orchestra.’ when we thought he was traveling on his own,” Kim says. “Who’s right or wrong is irrelevant. The question is, how are we going to get that person to the next city?”

Kim and her staff also produce a detailed itinerary that shows not only bus, train and plane departure and arrival times, but where to leave and pick up personal baggage, whether food will be available on a flight or train ride, and rehearsal and concert schedules.  For the Orchestra’s fall 2011 European tour, it even noted when daylight saving time ended.  In Madrid, where there was another rehearsal at the Auditorio de Nacional prior to the Cleveland Orchestra’s, the itinerary requested: “No playing of instruments backstage until the rehearsal is over, please, as there is sound bleed.”

Most of the musicians also practice in their hotel rooms prior to the concerts.  “If you walk down the halls on the floors where members of the Orchestra are staying, it sounds like a conservatory,” says Weiner.  Though he retired from the Orchestra two years ago, Weiner is called back for tours when an extra percussionist is needed, and he takes a drum pack with rubber pads to practice.  But that only simulates a snare drum; for a serious workout, percussionists and bass players must go to the concert hall, where their instruments are set up.

How does all this work and preparation translate onstage?  Judging from the repeat invitations the Cleveland Orchestra gets and the capacity crowds it attracts on tour, very well.  For Weiner, the packed halls are the best part of being on the road.

“The most gratifying aspect of touring is the response of the audiences,” he says.  “We’ve been extremely lucky, because the responses are usually overwhelming.  In Europe, you sometimes get this thunderous stamping of feet along with the applause, which may be the highest response you can get.  As many times as Iʼve toured, I still get a chill when that happens, because they’re telling you that you’re the best.”

Another measure of the Orchestra’s artistic success is the type of audience it attracts.  Astri Seidenfeld is a longtime patron who has been attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall since 1966, and in Europe, Japan and Korea for the past nine years.  She vividly remembers going to a performance in Tokyo and wondering who would sit in the two empty seats beside her.  “Just before the concert started, the Emperor and Empress walked down the aisle and sat in those seats,” she says.

Seidenfeld was also struck by the respect shown the Orchestra offstage.  She was in Seoul once when Welser-Möst  and a number of musicians visited a hospital to play for the patients. “When they got there, the entire hospital staff – doctors, everybody – was lined up at the entrance to welcome them,” she says.  “The musicians couldn’t believe their eyes. That was really special.”

For veteran members of the Orchestra, it’s all in a day’s work.

“When the downbeat comes,” Weiner says, “The Cleveland Orchestra is ready to play.”

by Frank Kuznik

Frank Kuznik is a longtime journalist and culture writer covering Northeast Ohio's vibrant arts and entertainment scene.  Born and raised in Cleveland, Frank has worked extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, most recently in Prague as the editor-in-chief and culture editor of The Prague Post.  He also writes about music on CulturedCleveland.blogspot.com.