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Travails of a Russian Orchestra touring the U.S.

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In Today's NY Times, there's an article on the 53-concert U.S. tour of the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra. Included is a fascinating (and depressing!) map of all the stops.

Russian Orchestra Tour: Either on the Bus or on the Stage

I wonder if the numerous Russian ballet companies touring the U.S. -- I don't mean the Maryinsky or the Bolshoi --have to put up with conditions like this?

When the great orchestras of Europe glide through the United States on tour, they stay at elegant hotels like Le Parker Meridien near Carnegie Hall, play in grand spaces like Symphony Hall in Boston and can receive more than $100 a day in meal money.

Then there is the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra.

On their nine-week tour, these Muscovites are slogging to Ashland, Ky.; Quincy, Ill.; and Zanesville, Ohio, often riding buses for up to seven hours, moving from highway to budget hotel to concert hall, and then all over again the next morning. They have a day off every two weeks, on average.

The pay? About $40 a concert in most cases, the musicians said. Per diems? Zero, making “breakfast included” the sweetest of words. The bus drivers often stop at malls to let them shop for food at a Wal-Mart. Many of them double up in hotel rooms.

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I can’t comment on touring conditions in the US but in the UK and Western Europe the dancers often find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous impresarios, I heard a real horror story about one of these groups regarding the reneging on the payment of per diems whilst in England. Another group was bussed across to Britain from the former Soviet Union and back to save the promoter money on air fares.

The coach tour isn’t always the ordeal it might sound though, as I once joined some Russians on part of a tour around Spain and the coach journeys were a riotous round of drinking and flirting with everyone appearing to have a great time. But these were relatively short distances; spending up to sixteen hours on a coach for three or four days must be unbearable for dancers with few opportunities to stretch their muscles. There are certain organizations out there that exploit these artists quite appallingly.

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The logistics of bus touring are similar to those of the skating tours, Stars on Ice and Canadian Stars on Ice, although those buses have been outfitted for as much comfort as possible. The poor pay and lack of per diem is miles away, though. I think it's the combination of everything done on the cheap that makes the musicians tour so harsh.

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Oh, this sounds so much like the grueling tours of the 1930s-40s Ballet Russe companies!

Yeah, it does. And it also sounds like the old smaller opera companies (ie Fortune Gallo) that toured as well as certain types of theater troups.

There are still groups that tour, for instance Jenny Kelly's different groups:


There are a couple of factors here. Many locales in the US can only support one or two nights of this kind of event so it's "move in today, move out tomorrow".

And there is the geography factor. The US covers a vast space, the cities that can support these kinds of attractions are separated by many, many more miles

on average than they would be, say, in Europe. So that tends to mean long drives between engagements .

When you read performers memoirs that describe doing this type of thing back in the 30s,40s, 50s and so forth, like the BR example that sandik gives, they often speak of the hardships as well as the less than generous monetary conditions. The Russian Orchestra tour sounds almost like a throwback to this really hard kind of life.

I don't know the specifics but I would think that Jenny Kelly's singers and dancers may be treated a bit more generously than their counterparts sixty years ago. On an opera list that I follow, a MExican tenor that sings with JK's Teatro Lirico d'Europa (or something to the effect of that kind of colorful title) would speak about the touring a bit and never mentioned it being arduous.

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I worked for a consortium of presenters several years ago, helping to put together block booking, which is pretty much the equivalent of touring. Most of these performances were slightly better compensated than the orchestra in the NYT story -- the individual presenters would negotiate with the artists for fees and content, with the savings on travel money being the big incentive to work cooperatively with other presenters. For smaller venues in more isolated locations, it meant the difference between doing two or three shows a year rather than just one. The situation described in the Times is pretty grim, and I hope that the public attention helps to change their situation -- I just wanted to raise my hand for presenters too.

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I didn't attend this orchestra's performance when it appeared in our town, part of an extensive and very successful subscription concert series.

Better orchestra seats would have been in the $95 range (reduced for series subscribers). That means that every single-ticket buyer sitting in the orchestra might be seen, in a sense, as subsidizing TWO musicians for that day. This is a 2300+ hall. The concert was partially paid for by its sponsor, by an investment bank.

Even with my limited math skills, it seems that someone -- not the musicians -- was making a lot of money.

As to the numerous touring Russian ballet companies. I guess they are fortunate that it is a physical impossibility for them to dance 13 out of every 14 days (unlike the instrumentalists). I'm also wondering about availability of physical therapy, proper nutrition, sufficient pointe shoes, costume dry-cleaning, etc., etc.

All of a sudden, the surprising lackluster quality and unevenness of Moscow Classical Ballet's Nutcracker, which I saw over Christmas, begins to makes sense. (At least they got to do THREE performances in one place, without having to get back on the bus.)

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Even with my limited math skills, it seems that someone -- not the musicians -- was making a lot of money.

If folks haven't seen the entertaining video (available on Netflix):

"Dancing for Dollars" (a 2 part documentary with the 1st segment "Bolshoi in Vegas" being the most interesting IMO)

I highly recommend it. This "Bolshoi in Vegas" segment shows how a Christain connected mid-westerner got mid-western farmers to invest in a sure fire get rich scheme to bring the Bolshoi to America. Tragically, they picked as their first venue Las Vegas where the gambling public showed no interest (big surprise :wink:). When this modern day Diaghilev finally ran out of money, he simply abandoned the company who then had to find their own way home by hook or by crook. One of the poignacies of this film is how nice a guy this impresario was, and how he fell victim to his own naivete and to his genuine love of ballet.

Here is the Netflix description:

The first segment of this two-part documentary recounts the Bolshoi Ballet's disastrous 1996 stint in Vegas, where they were met with apathetic reception and poor ticket sales. Part 2 traces the erosion of the Kirov Ballet's once-regal image amid allegations of corruption. Funny yet heartbreaking, this film examines the plight of post-Soviet dance troupes coming to grips with the diminished value of artistry and the impact of commercialism.

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and when you think about how many unpaid hours of labor went into these people becoming musicians in the first place... to end up with this horrible treatment.

I went to their recent performance a few weeks ago in Storrs at University of Connecticut... and looked at them looking out at the sparse audience... without knowing for sure, I imagined that, like the ballet companies that come through, they had been on a run of one night stands and had to pull it together this foggy rainy wintry mid-week evening.... some of them were wonderful and some them could have played better... and I forgave them any foible, just happy to have a live orchestra playing... I was less forgiving of Rimsky-Korsakov... the Scheherezade seemed to go on forever... and thought audiences must have had more patience in the 19th century.

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