The life of the MCO, its musicians and its management is shaped by two things: music and travel. These two aspects are inextricably linked: «As playing in the MCO is not a fixed job, and we are only coming together for the tours, we have no everyday life. This is what makes the MCO special and what keeps us alive. People come together only to play music, this is the most important thing for every person in this orchestra – and not as evident as it might seem,» says Chiara Santi, bassoonist in the orchestra.
The history of travel is as old as humanity itself. The original reasons for humans to move from place to place were practical ones – the search for food, water and protection from weather or predators. The idea of the pilgrimage, the journey to a site of religious importance, dates back to the ancient world. Trade has also played an important role in travel, and crusades and wars have been the cause of journeys far and wide throughout all historical periods. In early modern times, travel took on new meaning and purpose – intellectual and personal development. Artists and scholars of all professions journeyed to Europe’s academic and cultural centres; they travelled through foreign lands and recorded their observations about the languages, traditions and customs of their peoples. In the history of music, there are also early examples of travelling musicians, such as the wandering minstrel of the Middle Ages, who brought not only the art of song but also the latest news to court.
The concept of the MCO has always been one of an orchestra without a fixed residence: its members would come from many different countries, and the orchestra would play wherever it is invited to play, anywhere in the world. Also the orchestra’s namesake Gustav Mahler represents the spirit of the constant traveller: Mahler undertook many journeys throughout Europe and also to Russia and America during his lifetime. Today, MCO musicians are on the road about 180 days each year, playing concerts and operas in Europe and abroad, accumulating impressive amounts of frequent flyer miles with various airlines. For most people, «travel» is something associated with a rare holiday; for the musicians of the MCO, having time at home is the exception to the rule.
Practically speaking, this requires considerable organisational effort, involving not only the orchestra’s management, but also a travel agency and a transport company. The first steps in travel organisation are taken early, even years in advance, when a project is still in the planning phase. It is important to find out whether the concert location is accessible with conventional commercial means of transportation, whether there is an airport or a large train station nearby. Flight and train schedules are studied carefully to be sure that all of the musicians, along with their conductor, soloists and tour manager, will arrive on time for the first rehearsal, and that they will be able to travel back home the day after the final performance. For destinations outside of Europe, information regarding visa and entrance requirements is gathered at this early stage, and the first hotel reservations might also be made.
With the long-term planning taken care of, the project managers make the first concrete bookings several months before the tour. By this time, the number of participants, the exact length of the project and the available travel connections must be definitively set. If the tour requires a group flight to a far-away destination such as New York or Tokyo, this is booked about six months in advance. The organisation of individual travel begins approximately three months before the arrival day. This is where the travel agency comes in. Dina El Sawaf, who works for Westtours-Reisen in Bonn, describes the steps necessary in booking MCO travel: «We receive information about the project, including arrival and departure days, preferred arrival and departure times, the names of the musicians, information about their instruments and the budget for each person’s travel. The goal is that the musicians, who are travelling from very different locations in Europe, should all arrive at the same destination at approximately the same moment, with their instruments and luggage, and without exceeding the travel budget.» It may sound easy, but in reality it is a huge logistical enterprise. In the 2008/09 season, the calendar included 22 opera and concert projects, many of which were tours requiring group travel between performance locations in addition to the individual arrival and departure trips of the musicians. About 150 musicians took part in these projects, arriving from more than 20 countries. Each participant receives an individual travel schedule, booked in coordination with Dina El Sawaf and her colleague Kerstin Schmitz. To keep everything organised, the travel agency relies on four essential components: the profiles of all of the musicians, including frequent flyer numbers and instrument dimensions, which are saved in the agency’s booking system; communication with each musician via modern electronic channels; years of experience working with travelling orchestras; and very close contact with the MCO office’s project managers.
Along with the musicians, their instruments must, of course, also arrive safely at each of the destinations. In general, each musician brings his own instrument to the project, and in the case of smaller instruments such as violins or flutes, this is problematic only for other passengers who might be left with limited space for their own carry-on luggage. The challenge lies with large instruments such as double basses or timpani, which must either travel as checked baggage in the luggage compartment or be transported over land by truck. The company TransBWG in Berlin has been trucking the MCO’s instruments and office materials throughout Europe since 2002. Instruments and office cases stored in Berlin are loaded at the beginning of each tour, and if the home cities of the timpanist or double bassists are along the route, the driver can pick up their instruments as well along the way. Over the years, with the financial support of the Friends of the MCO, flight cases for percussion and for double basses have been purchased to ensure safe transport to any destination. And the celli have the most comfortable trip: they get an extra plane ticket and travel buckled in safely next to their owners.
Travel means more than just organisational planning for all involved: it brings inspiration and movement, creates curiosity, and also creates challenges. Project Manager Aglaja Thiesen describes her role on tour: «It’s important to be aware of the needs of others, to be flexible and to keep your sense of humour. During the tour, you find out whether everything you planned really works in reality. We hope that everyone comes back from a tour feeling like it was only a little tiring. If that’s the case then we’ve done a good job.» What is the worst case on tour? «When something unexpected and unpredictable happens, like a national strike.» And what is the motivation? «Travel itself! We don’t have time to see very much of each city, but we have close and intense interactions with people from each destination through our work, and this gives us an authentic impression of the mentality and the atmosphere of a place.»
How do the musicians experience travel? For Béatrice Muthelet, Principal Violist, one thing is certain: «Each country has its own musical world, its own relationship to music. Each country has its own stars and its own legends, and this is musically very interesting and illuminating.» Violinist Annette zu Castell is asked to name the most beautiful place she has been with the MCO: «I can’t remember that we ever travelled to a place that was not beautiful. Each city has its own charm.» Does travel have a positive effect on music-making? Cindy Albracht responds: «I think the travelling together helps to create a special bond, a warm feeling, it reunites and connects. I don’t know if that influences music making. I think so!»