It takes a village to prepare the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when it goes on tour. Transporting more than 150 people and 20 tons of cargo is a time-consuming process that requires intense organization.

Once the itinerary and dates are set, Heidi Lukas, CSO director of operations, and the rest of the operations staff 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,” she said.

Lukas, who has been on staff for 25 years, 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 on international tours. The visa process is always complicated; for a recent Asian tour, each participant needed 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.”

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. “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 tons of cargo to the CSO’s destinations. “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 Christopher Lewis, the CSO’s stage manager, 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,” he said. “We deal with storage of cargo in all venues and all stage set-ups.”

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.”

A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.