On tour in Japan, BSO looks to the future

BSO managing director Mark Volpe (right), pictured with music director Andris Nelsons at Harvard in April, is in Japan with Nelsons and the orchestra.
Jake Belcher/file
BSO managing director Mark Volpe (right), pictured with music director Andris Nelsons at Harvard in April, is in Japan with Nelsons and the orchestra.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of a six-concert tour of Japan, part of an ambitious ongoing strategy to further extend the BSO’s reputation as one of the world’s leading orchestras. Roughly 140 musicians, donors, and support staff are traveling with the orchestra, which under the baton of music director Andris Nelsons is performing in Nagoya, Osaka, Kawasaki, and Tokyo.

We spoke by phone with BSO managing director Mark Volpe in Kyoto earlier this week to talk about the tour, its role in the symphony’s overall mission, and what he hopes it will achieve for the BSO and Boston.

Q. Has touring become a greater priority with Andris Nelsons at the helm as music director?


A. We’ve been focused on further building our international reputation as one of the leading orchestras of the world, and recording and touring — if they’re done successfully — are commitments that create buzz. Andris loves touring. It’s something he believes in, but it’s also something we collectively believe in.

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We want to take the orchestra out once a season: A big tour each year lets them grow closer as musicians — playing different halls with different acoustics every night. There’s a pride factor in that they get to show off in Asia the level of artistry they deliver in Boston.

Q. Sounds ambitious. It’s also quite a change from the days of music director James Levine. Is this being driven by Nelsons?

A. We had that kind of rhythm with Seiji [Ozawa]. It served the orchestra well. We sort of lost that rhythm with Jim, if you will, because his health challenges precluded us from touring.

Andris certainly enjoys touring, but it’s an institutional priority. Part of what we were looking for in a music director was someone who was vital and had the energy to tour every year.


Andris’s interests and our interests are in total alignment. He wants to tour. The players want to tour. We want to tour, and we need to do this in a financially responsible way.

Q. It’s also a good way to burnish the BSO’s reputation.

A. There’s branding that goes with any type of commitment. You think of how Boston is branded for the world. Domestically, the sports teams are pretty prevalent, but you go where we are right now and a New England patriot is someone who dressed up in a funny costume and shot guns 240 years ago. But the educated classes anywhere in the world — whether it’s Peru or Prague or Tokyo — they’ve heard of the Boston Symphony.

Q. How do you determine whether the investment is worth it?

A. This tour has no sponsorship behind it, but we’re making money. We tend to be a high-fee orchestra relative to other American orchestras. We sign contracts saying that there can be no American orchestra with a higher fee. We don’t specify what orchestra. We just say we have to have that fee, so the economics are a little different for us. We’re having all of our costs covered.


Q. How are you measuring success?

A. There’s obviously the financial equation, and this tour is successful by that measure. Not all tours are: Europe is a much more expensive proposition.

But you also measure it by what type of reaction the orchestra gets. When you go into Tokyo, we’re playing around the same time that the Leipzig Gewandhaus is playing, the Berlin Philharmonic is playing, and the Vienna Philharmonic just played all over China. When we go into Europe we’re playing Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin — cities that know good music and that many great orchestras pass through.

What matters most, of course, is what we do in Boston, but it’s nice to have external validation to assure us that we’re on the right course.

Q. Does the orchestra perform differently abroad?

A. You want the orchestra to play and get excited about every concert, of course, but the reality is we’re mortal. We have our good nights and we have our less than stellar nights.

There’s always a high standard to begin with, but when you go on tour there’s a certain energy. They’re showing off. They should be proud of how they play, and that’s part of what you’re doing — hopefully without any undue swagger.

Q. How do you expect Boston audiences to receive the tour — how does it fit in within the BSO’s domestic program?

A. In my experience orchestras always play a little better after a tour. The players grow closer, playing different halls in different cities with different types of pressure. That’s all something that adds to what we bring back to Boston.

Hopefully Boston audiences realize that part of what leading orchestras — internationally significant orchestras — do is tour. Our primary commitment will always be to Boston and Tanglewood. We’ve been playing 85 subscription concerts; it’s not like we’ve been cutting out subscription concerts to tour.

Q. So what’s an average day for Mark Volpe while on tour in Japan?

A. I’ve spent the last two days with donors in Kyoto. I’ve probably talked to three journalists today, and there are still things going on in Boston. We’re planning Tanglewood. There’s board activity, and there are things going on in Boston that I have to monitor.

I also don’t miss any tour concerts. I don’t want to give anything away, but we’ve had concerts in Europe where we see leading government officials from the country, and part of my role is to meet and greet those people. That was certainly the case when we were in China [in 2014], with the head of the Communist Party in Beijing, and the head of the Communist Party in Shanghai. I’m sure there’ll be dignitaries from Japan.

Q. What about the instruments, do they travel in coach?

A. The instruments travel separately. There are four guys who truck them to Chicago and palletize them before getting on the plane. They’re with the instruments wherever [the instruments] go, dealing with customs issues, ivory issues. Some of these old bows have that little piece of ivory from elephants who died 200 years ago. That’s obviously an issue in today’s world. All of the instruments have certification paperwork behind them. I think we have like $20 million worth of instruments moving around.

Interview was edited and condensed. Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.