BSO set for high-profile European tour

BSO music director Andris Nelsons during rehearsals at the Tanglewood Music Center.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
Music director Andris Nelsons, whose career had been based in Europe, looks forward to renewing an international presence.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is packing its bags and heading to Europe, launching what it hopes will be a sustained return to the international stage.

The two-week, eight-city, $3.5 million tour — which opens Saturday in London — is the orchestra’s first visit to Europe since 2007, and its first visit to some of the continent’s most prominent venues in nearly a quarter-century. Also in the works: a second European tour in 2016, a trip to Asia in 2017, and possibly a return to Europe in 2018. Beyond that, there is talk of Australia and South America.

As the BSO’s first tour led by music director Andris Nelsons, this trip will give audiences and critics in Europe, where Nelsons has based his career until now, a first chance to assess the fruits of this new and closely watched partnership.


“It is of course a great excitement,” said the conductor by phone from Tanglewood last week. “And after all of the intensive work we did here, we are so happy to share it.”

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Touring was a routine part of the BSO’s schedule in the era of music director Seiji Ozawa, but less so during that of his successor, James Levine, whose health problems, coupled with the economic downturn, largely kept the orchestra close to home or meant its tours were often led by other conductors.

The BSO’s long-term absence from certain marquee European venues is striking. Most notable, perhaps, is the prestigious Salzburg Festival, where it last performed 24 years ago. The sheer length of that absence has heightened anticipation around the upcoming visit, as has, of course, the sense of general curiosity about the new partnership itself.

“Andris Nelsons is from our perspective one of the most interesting conductors of the younger generation,” said Florian Wiegand, director of concerts at the Salzburg Festival, by phone recently. “There’s a lot of curiosity to see how much he has influenced the sound of the orchestra already, in this short history of his working with the BSO. And whenever you hear an American orchestra with its amazing sound, working with a European conductor, it’s always very fascinating to see how the [sensibilities] merge.”

Andris Nelsons on conducting

The tour includes stops in Berlin, Milan (La Scala), Paris (the recently opened Philharmonie), and Lucerne.


Taking the BSO often to Europe, and reestablishing its international presence, is clearly an important goal for Nelsons.

“We’ve got a hungry conductor with a great appetite for making music, in Boston and Tanglewood but also throughout the world,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe, in a phone interview. “It’s something that, in a polite, supportive, and constructive way, Andris has made clear is a priority for him — and we’ve embraced it as an institutional priority.”

The tour will feature several scores heard this season in Symphony Hall, including works by Mahler, Shostakovich, and Strauss. In several cities, Yo-Yo Ma will be joining as soloist.

As with any international orchestral tour, behind the actual music will also be a symphony of logistics. The BSO will be traveling with almost 12 tons of cargo, from harps to vibraphones to a conductor’s podium.

And in case simply getting the instruments there was not enough, there is also the not incidental matter of how they are adorned. Recently tightened regulations governing the international transport of ivory have made enormous waves in the orchestral world.


The BSO will be traveling with a full library of photographs and documents demonstrating the nature and provenance of the small pieces of ivory found, for instance, in the tips of many violin bows. (To avoid unforeseen problems, many BSO string players have had the ivory in their bow tips replaced with silver.) Last year, even after meticulous preparation, ivory-related issues held up the orchestra’s entry into Japan by four hours.

‘Andris Nelsons is . . . one of the most interesting conductors of the younger generation.’

Florian Wiegand, director of concerts at the Salzburg Festival 

Despite the challenging economics and huge logistical demands of touring, it remains one of the few ways for major ensembles to steward their international profiles.

“The BSO is such a strong orchestra in terms of the reputation, the quality of the playing, and its financial situation,” said principal horn James Sommerville. “But if you’re never out of Boston, there is a danger of turning into a regional orchestra because, you know, you’re never out of your region.”

For his part, Nelsons also views touring, paradoxically, as a way of deepening the orchestra’s work at home. “The identity of the orchestra is almost forced to be stronger, because you are not at home. And on tour, you’re all the time intensively together, so I somehow feel it helps to unite us as musicians, and unites me with the whole team.”

“And through that,” he continued, “you develop more and more intimate and exciting ways of making music, because you listen to each other and repeat one piece several times. And then, when you come back home — first of all, you’re so excited, because you are home, and also because all of that stays.”

BSO music director Andris Nelsons during rehearsals at the Tanglewood Music Center.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
BSO music director Andris Nelsons during rehearsals at the Tanglewood Music Center.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at