The Vienna Philharmonic, despite its wealth and fame, was able to overcome the coronavirus for most of the pandemic. Despite the fact that the virus was crippling much of the classical music sector, the ensemble continued its tours to Japan, South Korea, Egypt, and Italy.
The Omicron variant exploded just as the orchestra was celebrating 2022 with its famous concerts of waltzes. A number of players had tested positive for the virus by late January, forcing cancellation of a three city tour in France, Germany, and Germany. Earlier this month, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who was set to tour with the ensemble, also tested positive, throwing the orchestra’s plans into disarray.
“Everything is very unpredictable,” Daniel Froschauer, the Philharmonic’s chairman, said in an interview. “We feel we have to fight for our music.”
The Philharmonic’s return to Carnegie Hall this week, for the first-time in three years, highlights the challenges faced by even the most financially sound ensembles when they try to return to the international concert circuit. It is an essential part of the classical music ecosystem.
The number of Coronavirus infections has declined significantly in the last week around the world, giving hope that tour business can rebound soon. Some ensembles, such as the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra, are moving forward with European engagements in the coming months. These will be their first overseas trips since the pandemic.
There are still many challenges. Orchestras face potential disruption from future waves of the disease, which makes planning difficult. Some bustling international markets, like China, have quarantine rules so strict that tours are almost impossible.
The ongoing financial turmoil resulting from the pandemic, which decimated cultural institutions, has raised new questions about touring. This is at a moment when many groups are struggling to sell tickets at home and have uncertain budgets. The Minnesota Orchestra had planned to visit South Korea and Vietnam in the past, but it said that it does not plan on making any trips abroad. A spokeswoman for the orchestra called the decision a “strategic and philosophical choice to focus on our own city and state in the immediate post-pandemic period.”
Simon Woods, who is the president and chief executive of League of American Orchestras said that he believes classical touring will survive. But he added that some ensembles were re-evaluating the costs of touring amid the pandemic, especially given that “the Covid situation could upend their plans at any time and put the steep financial investment at risk.”
“Many orchestras are coming out of the pandemic having depleted their reserves,” Woods said. “They are asking, ‘Is this the right use of money?’”
Orchestra tours have been a mainstay of classical music since the beginning of the 20th century, when the most important ensembles from Europe and the United States started making whistle-stop trips to capitals around the world. These tours were not only for artistic purposes, but also for commercial purposes, giving orchestras access to new markets and sometimes lucrative sponsorships.
Except for a few elite ensembles, tours are not as lucrative as they once were. According to public filings, Carnegie paid $1.4 million to the Philharmonic for four 2019 performances. But they bestow international prestige on orchestras — an attractive prospect for donors — and give ensembles an opportunity to build cohesion.
All that came to an abrupt halt when the coronavirus epidemic struck. The first industry to close was classical touring. Questions about the value and viability of traditional touring were raised by the pandemic. Administrators and players raised concerns about the amount of time, energy, and money spent on tours and the fund-raising that led to them. However, there was little in the way if any lasting impact. Some were concerned about the large carbon emissions associated with large-scale travel. Tours can include groups of up to 100 musicians and staff members, as well as instruments.
Some groups, including the New York Philharmonic — a regular on the global circuit, visiting more than 400 cities in over 60 countries in its history — started experimenting with residencies even before the pandemic. Instead of taking frantic continental tours, the Philharmonic tried to forge longer-term partnerships in a lesser number of places, including Shanghai where its musicians had traveled frequently before the virus struck.