Musical Ambassadors: Reflecting on the CSO’s 1966 World Tour

Bringing the Queen City’s extraordinary artistry to people outside the Cincinnati area has been a core value for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for over a hundred years. What started as concerts around the region grew into an important activity for gaining a global reputation for the Orchestra. Fifty years ago, in 1966, the CSO embarked on a ten-week world tour spanning 33,000 miles and 15 countries and reaching over 100,000 people over the course of 42 concerts. While an enormous undertaking even by today’s standards, the 1966 world tour remains a pivotal moment in the Orchestra’s history, firmly establishing the “Cincinnati sound” on the world stage.

The CSO’s music director at the time, Max Rudolf, made it one of his primary objectives to build recognition for the Orchestra, in part by scheduling high-profile tours. Already a well-connected musician, Mr. Rudolf used those connections to build a relationship with the U.S. Department of State. Before long, the CSO became the first orchestra to be tapped by the State Department for such a tour. While the tour was officially sponsored by the State Department, support from prominent Cincinnati arts philanthropist Ralph Corbett covered the enormous expenses from such an undertaking. Once funding was in place, planning commenced, and Mr. Rudolf conceived programs championing American composers, orchestral classics and contemporary music. Pianist Lorin Hollander, then only 22 years old, was the featured soloist, and he traveled and performed with the Orchestra throughout the entire tour.

“It all came back with particular clarity earlier this year when my wife and I were traveling in Greece,” said Mr. Hollander. “I remember leading up to the tour and all our conversations about the extraordinary magic of where we were going to be traveling. [The 1966 tour] was an experience that can’t be described adequately because it is so fraught with images and memories.”

The tour began in Salonika, Greece on August 5, 1966. The next day, the Orchestra traveled to Athens and performed a program in the ancient Herod Atticus Amphitheater—the Greek royal family sat in the front row. This performance would be a highlight for many orchestra members, along with the many others that took place in historic, iconic venues. The tour continued to Istanbul and Lebanon, which also proved memorable, in part for the impressive venues. “We were in Beirut, and we had to drive an hour in the desert to the concert, which took place in Baalbek in the largest Roman temple ever built,” said Carlos Zavala, a cellist in the Orchestra at the time. “It was impressive, and it sounded great because the acoustics were good sitting in front of the temple,” he said.

Michael O’Daniel worked as the CSO’s Assistant Manager and Public Relations Manager during the tour, filming concerts and sending video back to Cincinnati television news stations. “A very wealthy family in Lebanon was part of the local host group. They invited the whole orchestra to a cookout on their mountaintop estate,” said Mr. O’Daniel. “From there you could see the Mediterranean on one side, and Baalbek and Roman ruins on the other. The food was unbelievable,” he said. Performances continued in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Dubrovnik, Lucerne, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, Taipei, Okinawa, Urawa, Tokyo, Takasaki and Seoul.

The varied tour repertoire included Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, William Schuman’s New England Triptych, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, along with a slew of other works. Mr. Rudolf conducted the majority of performances, although then-Associate Conductor Erich Kunzel took up the baton for a few concerts toward the end of the tour.

The tour was as much about diplomacy as music. Mr. Rudolf, Mr. Hollander and members of the orchestra and staff were frequently invited to receptions and dinners with American and foreign dignitaries, helping build diplomatic relationships during a time when some of those affairs were strained. Some CSO musicians even conducted informal workshops and “jam sessions” with local musicians.

“He adored the different cuisine, art, music and people,” said Mr. Hollander of his mentor, Mr. Rudolf. “He was also an astute statesman, and he was able to be with people and accomplish that cultural exchange in a way that I know changed lives, because I saw it happen.”

Of course, like any orchestra tour, it was not without its challenges. An airplane malfunction meant that a planned performance with full orchestra became a solo piano recital. Airline workers left instrument cases in the hot sun, resulting in the finish melting off the double basses. In Okinawa, musicians feared a tropical storm would flood their hotel. Not to mention, after ten weeks on the road, exhaustion and homesickness started to set in.

Top of mind for all of the musicians, however, was the music itself. “That was really the most intense reality, no matter where we were,” said Mr. Hollander. “The commitment to beauty, the perfection of balance, the essence of the composer, the opening of expressive depths of soul—that’s what it was about. I remember intense exhilaration. To be with endlessly different audiences and to express that deep level of personal involvement—I learned anew on that tour as a young man that is what the role of an artist is.” The tour became important for building support back home. By making an impression around the world, audiences and philanthropists in Cincinnati took notice and love for the CSO grew. While the Orchestra’s success has been the result of decades of tenacity and perseverance, the 1966 world tour most certainly turned international attention to the Queen City’s musical culture.

“It was a unique experience, no doubt about it,” said Mr. Zavala. “My hobby is photography, so I have lots of slides from the tour. I remember it gladly.”

In 2017, the CSO and Pops will embark on two international tours, one in Asia and one in Europe, performing a total of 17 concerts overseas over the course of the year. Fifty years after the historic trip around the world, the Orchestra continues to be Cincinnati’s ambassador to the world.