It takes a village to prepare the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to go on tour. On Jan. 11, the orchestra will embark on its 59th international tour and its 10th with Maestro Muti, with stops in Taipei, Taiwan; Tokyo, Japan; Shanghai and Beijing, China, and Seoul, South Korea.
Transporting 166 people and 20 tons of cargo to Asia is a time-consuming process that requires intense organization. Vanessa Moss, CSO vice president of orchestra and building operations, schedules the tours years in advance with Maestro Muti and the artistic planning team.
Once the itinerary and dates are set, it falls to Heidi Lukas, CSO director of operations, and the rest of the operations staff to settle the many details — from visas to cargo manifests — that going on tour entails: “My job on tour is to make it possible so the musicians don’t have to worry about anything except playing at the highest level.”
Lukas has been on staff for 20 years, and the January trip to Asia will mark her 41st tour with the CSO. Throughout her tenure, she has learned to expect the unexpected: “I used to think if I planned everything down to the last detail and was perfect, nothing would go wrong, but something always goes wrong. So I realized that part of my job is to fix problems when they arise!”
One of the biggest logistical hurdles is getting the proper clearance for CSO musicians and accompanying staff members to travel. The visa process is always complicated, but it’s especially so for this tour, as each participant actually needs three separate visas.
“We have to get everyone to complete each application; we have to make sure the passport is valid for long enough after the tour, based on the restrictions of different countries. We have to make sure there are enough [passport] pages for all the visas needed,” Lukas said. “The process is quite time-intensive as far as getting everyone’s passport, getting it to three different consulates, working with people’s own travel schedules if they need it in the interim, going through a lot of detail work with our presenters in the countries we’re going to.”
Sameed Afghani, executive assistant to Moss, has been spearheading the visa effort for the operations department, which also means coordinating efforts for the CSO musicians, since several hold foreign passports. Many travel details are finalized at the last minute. As Lukas observed, “It’s all coming together right now; it’s just a huge, huge effort on this particular tour.”
In addition to securing travel documents, air travel, hotel reservations and ground transportation all need to be booked. The CSO works with the travel agency TravTours Inc. to handle many of those details, but often the performing venue will be providing transportation, which adds yet another layer of complexity. “It’s a little bit more complicated with our Asia tour because often our presenters provide a number of things, such as ground transportation and luggage trucks,” Lukas said. “So there’s a lot of coordination between the presenter, TravTours and us.”
Along with squaring away personnel details, there’s the separate process of getting the 20 tons of cargo to Asia. “The cargo is on a whole separate tour,” Lukas said with a laugh. “It shows up when we need it for concerts, but it has completely separate cargo flights and an itinerary.”
Getting everyone’s gear to Asia also requires a lot of advance planning and permissions. Jeff Stang, CSO production manager, makes sure the carnet, or customs list, is accurate. “There’s a lot of detail work that goes into that, making sure that we have the appropriate documentation in the carnet, with information about the musicians’ instruments and what they are putting in cargo vs. what they are hand-carrying on the plane,” Lukas said.
When the orchestra returns to the States, members must comply with U.S. Customs restrictions on endangered materials, such as ivory, tortoise-shell or rosewood. Many instruments have parts made from these restricted items, so Stang works closely with the musicians to get detailed documentation of these items and to secure a separate customs permit.
Once everything has been cleared, Lukas works closely with Kelly Kerins, the CSO’s stage manager since 1999, to ensure the cargo’s seamless transfer to Asia. “I oversee and work with crew on stage logistics, supervise [with the CSO stagehands] loading and unloading trucks, palletizing at airports and participating in customs clearance,” Kerins said. “We deal with storage of cargo in all venues and all stage set-ups.”
For this tour, the itinerary presents even more challenges for the stage crew. Kerins explained the complicated process: “The cargo is flown to Taipei. We break pallets in Taipei, clear customs and load trucks. The trucks are unloaded at the venue, then reloaded at the venue after residency, and the process is then reversed at the airport in Taipei. We repeat this in Japan, China and Korea. So it is flown from the U.S. to Taiwan, Taiwan to Japan, Japan to China, China to Korea, and Korea back to the U.S. The cargo must be broken down from air cargo pallets, cleared through customs, loaded onto trucks, and trucked to each venue each time.”
Further complicating the process is the necessity of flying the cargo to each city. “When we tour Europe, we might have one flight and then we can truck the cargo around from there,” Lukas said. “But the cargo has to fly everywhere in Asia, so the crew is going to the airport and palletizing the cargo and getting it ready to be flown. It’s going through customs again — it’s lot more time- and worry-intensive than just trucking it around Europe.”
Lukas and the operations team have learned to anticipate needs and do as much as possible in advance. While on tour, the CSO almost always brings its own equipment and doesn’t rely on renting or borrowing instruments on site. “If we need a celeste, for example, for a piece, we take it on tour. The only thing we don’t bring is a piano,” Lukas said. “Other than chairs and stands, we pretty much bring anything else we need.”
Along with the cargo, the orchestra always has a doctor on the tour staff. “I do think it surprises people that we take a doctor with us, that seems unusual maybe, but it’s really important, and I’ve seen the value of having a doctor there time after time,” Lukas said.
For the operations department, touring is an exhausting experience, but when the final product is presented on stage, all the preparations and precautions fade into the background. “I think it’s really amazing to see the audiences and their reaction to the orchestra,” Lukas said. “They are so thrilled to be able to hear them live, and the wonderfully warm welcome and appreciation that the orchestra is given from these audiences is incredible to experience.”
Lukas knows she and her team have succeeded when the only thing the audience notices is the music: “A lot of the time, no one sees what the operations team is up to, so when I hear the concert, it makes me so happy. I feel like a small part of the on-stage product, even though I’m not actually performing.”
Maggie Berndt is a Chicago-based arts writer.