Musicians at airport
New Century Chamber Orchestra at the tour’s beginning: a 7-hour delay at San Francisco International Airport | Courtesy of New Century Chamber Orchestra

Eighteen musicians from San Francisco are in the middle of a 16-day, 10-concert tour of Germany. New Century Chamber Orchestra is led by Music Director Daniel Hope, for whom Germany is home — and whose constant touring around the globe is a phenomenon unmatched since Marco Polo.

This is the second European tour for NCCO, and it’s even more acclaimed than the group’s well-received first tour in 2019.

“One thing that has been especially exciting for us is the enthusiasm of the German audiences,” said violinist Nicole Sauder. “The attendance has been incredible and the audiences unbelievably warm and appreciative. In both Bremen and Braunschweig, the audience clapped so much after the first half that Daniel [Hope] and [pianist] Alexey [Botvinov] played a pre-intermission encore. Then, we played two encores at the end of the program.”

NCCO’s first concert of the tour in Bremen, with Daniel Hope and Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov | Credit: Sören L. Schirmer

This is especially noteworthy as European audiences seldom match the frequent “automatic standing ovation” in U.S. concert halls. Hope told SF Classical Voice:

“Even at the first three concerts of the tour, we have already performed for more than 3,500 people, full of joy, enthusiasm, and standing ovations every night. Morale is very high, but life on the road can often be challenging. Many of our musicians had severe travel delays coming from San Francisco, the airline lost several pieces of luggage, and the heat in Europe has been excessive. European air conditioning is definitely ‘old world’!

“At our concert at the Philharmonie in Cologne, we were only permitted into the hall 45 minutes before the concert began, as the WDR Symphony Orchestra had intensive rehearsals till the last minute. But their wonderful chief conductor, my friend Cristian Măcelaru, graciously allowed me to use his dressing room to get ready.

“The next morning, I arranged for our orchestra to visit the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn and view the most important collection of Beethoven manuscripts in the world. Next stop is the iconic Frauenkirche church in Dresden, where Bach used to perform on the organ.” (Hope is president of Beethoven-Haus and artistic director of the Frauenkirche.)

NCCO in Dresden’s Frauenkirche, a famous 18th-century Baroque landmark | Courtesy of New Century Chamber Orchestra

As Hope points out, audiences only see touring musicians onstage, dressed to the nines, and performing, but — like any traveler — they have to get there first, often in circumstances not guaranteed to be optimal.

NCCO Executive Director Richard Lonsdorf described the beginning of the tour:

“The first few days of tour were mostly grappling with travel delays, lost luggage, and jet lag (some of us had a seven-hour delay just leaving [San Francisco International Airport] last week). But now we are all feeling more adjusted — even the one COVID case we had didn’t have to miss a concert.”

Trying to leave San Francisco International Airport on United Airlines tried the patience of the musicians because of an “engine issue,” which meant boarding, unboarding, gate switching, plane switching, and crew switching — leading to problems with the connecting flight in Germany and resulting in 24 hours of travel.

Once at its destination, the orchestra’s busy schedule has recalled the adventures and stress of “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” — Bremen (June 10) to Braunschweig (June 11) to Cologne (June 14) to Dresden (June 17) to Essen (June 18) to Elmshorn (June 20) to Wismar (June 22) to Stolpe (June 23) to Göhren-Lebbin (June 24) to the final concert at Wiesbaden (June 25).

Bus ride
Cards help on long bus drives | Courtesy of New Century Chamber Orchestra

The driving distances between destinations vary from two to seven hours; travel is by a rented bus, and Lonsdorf described the experience:

“New Century fits on a single tour bus, so we’ve been bonding on the road quite a bit … lots of card games in the back and occasional guests (friends and family) on different legs. As I’m writing this, we’re in the first hour of one of our longest drives, between Cologne and Dresden, about six to seven hours, but it’s been fun to bond with each other and also some of the Swiss and German musicians who are joining us as guests in the low strings, harp, percussion, and harpsichord.”

A follow-up on the Cologne-Dresden trip from Lonsdorf:

“It took us about 10 hours to drive from Cologne to Dresden, in time for tonight’s concert, twice as long as expected, due to an unexpected autobahn closure and a very tedious country detour, all without functioning internet. We have to make the same drive in reverse tomorrow, so we are hoping it goes more smoothly. Life on the road!”

At least, the musicians are traveling light, with nothing larger than a cello coming from home. Double basses, percussion, and — of course — pianos are rented locally at each venue.

Musicians backstage
NCCO musicians take advantage of the tradition of free Kölsch beer backstage at the Cologne Philharmonie | Courtesy of New Century Chamber Orchestra

True to NCCO tradition, concert programs are varied, adventurous, and blend new works with classical and popular standards — some in a new version, such as Max Richter’s Vivaldi: The Four Seasons — Recomposed.

A new work getting its European premieres is Tan Dun’s Double Concerto, with soloists Hope and Botvinov. The rest of the rotating repertoire on tour includes Bernard Herrmann’s music from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; film scores by Ennio Morricone; George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, arranged by Clarice Assad; and John Williams’s “With Malice Toward None,” from the film Lincoln.

Also: Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” Kurt Weill’s orchestral suite from The Threepenny Opera, and British composer Hannah Kendall’s … I may turn to salt, an NCCO commission premiered this spring.

CD cover
NCCO has also released its first CD recorded under Daniel Hope

The tour is also being used to publicize NCCO’s first album recorded with Hope, a prolific Deutsche Grammophon artist. Music for a New Century features four works commissioned or co-commissioned by the orchestra over the last six years from Jake Heggie, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Philip Glass, and Tan Dun. Hope and Botvinov have been signing CDs after every show.

On tour, there are always a few opportunities to be a traveler as well as a performer. Besides the Beethoven-Haus outing, there was also a visit to a famous luthier:

“Isaac Melamed got his cello bow rehaired, and Anna Kruger had the wood on her viola sampled to determine its age and lineage through a process called dendrochronology (measuring the rings in the wood). She’ll get the results in a few weeks.”

And the orchestra is still looking forward to an event at the time of this report: “Many of us are excited to go see Beyoncé perform in Hamburg on our free day on June 21.”