Why Boston missed the bus on its European tour

Why Boston missed the bus on its European tour


norman lebrecht

September 20, 2018

It is now widely known that the Boston Symphony messed up the last leg of its European trip, arriving in Amsterdam so late on Monday that the concert was almost abandoned.

The Boston Globe gives this account behind its paywall: On Monday, the orchestra was at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, waiting to depart for that evening’s concert in Amsterdam, the final performance of the tour — only to find out that their chartered aircraft had mechanical problems and could not fly. No trains or buses were available for all 110 musicians (not counting staff and patrons) to get to Amsterdam in time: the only option was a 76-seat propeller plane. 76 musicians are not enough to perform Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, the main work on the program. Zoë Madonna reports on what happened next.

They played a Beethoven symphony instead. So far, so straightforward. But much more interesting is what we hear from an orchestra tour organiser, writing to Slipped Disc under strict anonymity. Here’s why the tour broke down:


‘Boston Symphony performed in the Paris Philharmonie on Sunday night and arrived at the airport on Monday morning for an 11.00 charter to Amsterdam (with concert Monday night). After a two hour delay, it was apparent that the plane has major technical problems and couldn’t fly.  There was no charter anywhere in Europe free and sufficiently large to fly the entire party.

The union rules didn’t allow for a coach to Amsterdam on the day of a concert and there were no trains with spaces. 

‘Eventually, two small charter planes were found but the available take-off slots means that the first plane wouldn’t take take off until 17.30.  So they had to change the programme to something smaller (it was supposed to be Shostakovich).  They decided to play Beethoven which they hadn’t performed in concert for two years!  Boston Symphony scanned the parts via pdf and the Concertgebouw printed them out.

‘Half the orchestra eventually landed in Amsterdam at 19.00!  The concert, supposed to start at 20.15, was delayed until 21.00 and the players got off the coach, changed and went straight into the stage….. no balance rehearsal.’

In brief: They wouldn’t get on the bus for 4.5 hours to save a concert at the Concertgebouw.


  • Suzanne says:

    These sorts of union regulations / agreements exist in Germany, too. I know of a German “A” orchestra that tours widely and is not allowed to use busses for any distance further than 150 km. That’s not to say that, in Germany at least, the musicians’ committee (Orchestervorstand) couldn’t have waived that restriction in an emergency situation, but management could not have made that call.

    • Andreas B. says:

      You are right, most musicians’ committees would have made considerable concessions to make sure to be able to play a concert in the Concertgebouw.

      However, in this specific case I don’t really see what a solution could have looked like – see my comment below (also about the relevant German TVK rules).

  • Concerned Bystander says:

    Surely the train from Paris to Amsterdam would have been a) quicker and b) cheaper, even with a luggage/instrument van alongside. Unless there was a deal on the charter for the whole tour? Very interesting insight into union rules in the US.

    • Minutewaltz says:

      It says in the article there weren’t enough spaces on the train.

    • Stephen Owades says:

      Luggage and instruments moved by trucks overnight on this tour, and they were in position in Amsterdam as planned. It’s only the humans—players and staff—who needed to sleep and hence to travel by plane. And while we’re wondering about availability of seats on high-speed trains at the last minute, don’t forget that it was the charter air carrier (Luxair) that couldn’t come up with any replacement equipment other than a small prop plane after the original aircraft failed.

  • Will says:

    yes should have just taken the train in the first place, but trains are largely an alien concept to Americans. US orchestras tour with huge entourages and at great expense – often down to union rules.

  • Jeroen Woudstra says:

    the bus would have taken at least 6 hours !! check google maps and apply a max speed of 90 km per hour for coaches…

  • Malcolm James says:

    Paris – Amsterdam by high-speed train is under 3.5 hours. This is likely to be as quick as taking the plane, once you have factored in the check-in and transfer times.

    • Tamino says:

      Actually quicker than plane, considering you are traveling downtown to downtown by train, and without the the security and check in time additions.
      I would estimate an timetable for an orchestra traveling Paris-Amsterdam by plane.
      T = 0 meeting in the hotel lobby, entering coaches to CDG
      T+ 60 min. arriving at CDG, 120 min. before departure.
      T+180 plane departure from gate in CDG
      T+270 plane arrival at gate in AMS
      T+330 coaches depart airport after luggage retrieval
      T+370 coaches arrive at hotel
      that’s 6 hours and 10 minutes for plane travel to AMS

      High speed train ride would be
      20 min bus ride to train station, arriving 20 min. before train departure =T+40
      3.5 hours train ride = T+250
      20 min transfer to Hotel = T+290

      roughly 80 min quicker by train than by plane.

  • Andreas B. says:

    interesting problem, unfortunate circumstances.

    – trains between Paris and Amsterdam which would have been fast enough (the “Thalys”) require seat reservations.
    Very likely they were fully booked on such short notice, therfore not a viable option.

    – Taking coaches very probably would not have done the job either – travelling 500km through some of the most densly populated areas of Europe would have meant high risks of delays and therefore also put the concert in jeopardy.

    re. the situation in German orchestras:
    the TVK (the collective bargaining agreement) does not concern itself with means of transport, only which amounts of travel time have to be counted as services.

    also, because of the state of road traffic in Central Europe, it seems to be sensible to not rely on busses for longer distances. Especially because trains run from city centre to city centre, are fairly reliable, and in most instances considerably faster than road travel.

    German orchestras regularly performing on tour can in fact work out more detailed travel agreements than the TVK, which will take these considerations into account.
    I see no evident reason for bashing German unions in this case.

    • Andreas B. says:

      … or, in fact, bashing American unions.

      as has been pointed out before, the trip by bus would have taken almost 6 hours (not 4,5h), and that’s the best case scenario without any traffic jams or other delays.

      so by the time they realised their original plan wouldn’t fly, as it were, and after having needed some time to get the coaches organised, it would have been just as late.

  • Jonathan says:

    The train does take only 3 and a bit hours, but more often than not it is full, or near full. I would be very surprised if they could find around 80 available seats on the day of travel just like that. I drive between the two cities frequently and it is all but impossible to do it in less than 6 hours. If you don’t stop, and have no traffic problems then you might do it, but more than likely you will run into some sort of snarl up near Lille or Antwerp.

  • Derek says:

    It seems to be an unfortunate situation with no alternative at such short notice.
    Trains have no space and bus/coach would take too long with no guarantee of arriving in time.

    It is not practical to have a ready made back up for all travel arrangements so the only other option is to build in free days which adds significant extra expenditure.

    Incidentally, I saw the Boston Symphony at the London Proms (2 concerts – including Mahler 3 and Shostakovich 4) in this tour and they, together with Andris Nelsons, were inspired and on top form. It was a really thrilling experience. Well done!

    • Robert Groen says:

      Yeah, rub it in Derek! I would never claim that Beethoven was a poor substitute for anything, but if an audience is expecting Shostakovich’s Fourth, the shock may be considerable. Was there a money back guarantee at the Concertgebouw? Anyway, I would never advise an orchestra to travel 500 kilometres on the day of a concert. But such is the tightness of today’s scheduling of international concert tours. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium, as it were.

      • Elizabeth Owen says:

        I got there at 7.45 to be told it wasn’t starting until 9.00p.m. When the nice box office assistant explained what had happened I said why didn’t they take a train, the trains here are wonderful and so cheap. Yes he said, we have been wondering that too. We were all given a free drink and I’m not aware of anyone asking for their money back.

        • Melisande says:

          Isn’t the ‘free’ drink part of the ticket price?

          I was given a full refund for the concert, incidentally.

          • Elizabeth Owen says:

            I suppose you are right. I was actually told by the bar maid that I could have had two drinks if I wanted!

            It was a good concert although I had gone for the Shostakovich.

        • Melisande says:

          I didn’t know I had a twin!
          However, I wasn’t present at this concert of the BSO.
          But the evening of chamber music by the Zemlinsky Quartet in an all Dvorak programme on Wednesday evening in the Kleine Zaal (Small Room) was exquisite.

  • George says:

    Anyone who’s ever been involved in organizing a tour knows what a non-functioning airplane at short notice means and how difficult it is to get slots, especially at a huge airport like Paris CDG. Hats off to everyone who helped to solve this and for performing that night in Amsterdam.

    • AndrewB says:

      I agree with you, the concert sponsor got their concert and hopefully the audience was not too disappointed at the change of programme- at least there was no cancellation.
      Also we really don’t know why train was not considered as an option by the administrators from the outset- what the overall tour planning was like. In any case this was certainly not the fault of the musicians or unions.
      They don’t plan the tours.
      What we can say is that the Boston Symphony didn’t miss any bus because as the press release says there were none available at that notice – coach companies in France don’t just wait around on the hope a flight will be cancelled and a 110+ symphony orchestra requires their services.
      Having travelled the four corners of the globe with an ensemble for many years I can assure you travel problems happen. In fact given the busy International concert schedules of many structures I am amazed that incidents don’t happen more often, but that shouldn’t reflect on the willingness of the performers whose only wish is to give the concert.

  • Musician says:

    And that’s why we have so many third rate politician conductors with orchestras devoid of a ‘sound’. As a chief the max you get is 12 weeks a year, the other 30 are covered by ‘guests’. The big loser? The music. Haven’t heard of a Union that built a Gaudi Cathedral or composed a Beethoven symphony. Decisions need to be taken by respected leaders, even if they’re not ‘nice guys’, but who I am to judge, I’m not a union official.

    • Tamino says:

      The ones who like the jet set of conductors and soloists the most, are the agents, since they get a higher percentage for their services, if the contracts are only for one engagement in general.
      Ideally a conductor in high demand grabs 2-3 chief positions, gets paid like he were an actual chief, but is present only like a frequent guest. And the rest of the time he (or she) jet-sets around the world, doing little in rehearsals to improve the overall quality of the orchestra playing, just being focused on making ‘bella figura’ in the concerts of the week.
      Music suffers, but most of the composers are dead anyway, and can’t fight back.

    • Bruce says:

      I don’t understand what this [legitimate] complaint has to do with travel SNAFUs on tour?

      • Musician says:

        Dear Bruce, if it were up to the conductor or director, they’d most likely have opted for the buses. A little discomfort and concert performed as intended. Unions always compromise on artistic ideals as they’re there to serve the lowest common denominator.

        • Bruce says:

          And — to address your original complaint — the number of weeks the music director spends conducting the orchestra would have changed this situation… how?

          Am I missing a transition here? …Unions determine the number of weeks a music director spends with an orchestra and thus the amount of artistic oversight he/she can provide? (Not true AFAIK) Or… the union’s power over travel conditions is responsible for this SNAFU in some way, like if they’d chosen buses everything would have been fine? (I’ve been on buses — well, one bus — that ran out of gas, another that overheated and had to “rest” on the side of the road for awhile, and several where the driver didn’t really know where he was going and we ended up driving around for awhile before finding the hall. Also one traffic jam caused by an accident on the freeway, no fault of the driver or the bus company.) Since neither of these things really makes sense, I figure I’m probably wrong; but I’m just trying to figure out what you mean.

          I feel like you are taking your complaint about conductors and unions and applying it to this travel situation in some way that I’m not getting.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Er…in Europe it would almost always be the train that is the most sensible option. Especially for a journey like Paris-to-Amsterdam. I guess, being an American orchestra, they may not have realised this when they arranged the transport.

  • anon says:

    The could’ve:

    – ubered it
    – skyped it
    – had Elon Musk deliver a special rescue shuttle

  • Brian says:

    I’m sorry the Amsterdammers were deprived of that Shostakovich with the Boston Symphony. If it’s any consolation, they heard Andris Nelsons conduct it with their own orchestra, the RCO, a few years ago. It just shows nothing should be taken for granted. We should think of that as audiences, too.

    Just for the record, and not that it matters, the (superb) Sunday concert was over at 18:45h, and the Thalys high-speed line between Paris and Brussels was closed for maintenance that weekend.

    So one had to take the scenic route from Paris to Brussels, which took an hour longer. I was home in the Cologne/Bonn area about seven hours after the concert ended.

    Incidentally I just got an e-mail from Thalys. The subject line: Merci de prendre le train vers un avenir durable!

    I hope the orchestra had a safe trip back home and look forward to their next European tour.

    • clarrieu says:

      As much as I find the 4th symphony to be one of his most interesting, I wouldn’t risk to say any audience seems “deprived of Shostakovich” these days, good old Dimitri being one of the most overplayed composers in programming of european orchestras, to the expense of other great symphonists of the XXth century.

      • Brian says:

        My dear Clarrieu, did you actually hear their Shostakovich? The Fourth with Nelsons is rather special. (And I do think that particular composer is what AN does best; that’s just my opinion.)

        And in reference to overplayed composers, my first thoughts run to Mahler. I lived through an orgy of Mahler in 2010 and 2011 (including the Jansons era in Amsterdam) and absolutely loved it! Now I barely listen to him, but will eventually go back to him.

        Leaving aside the circumstances of the BSO’s tour, is Beethoven not the overplayed one?

        Who, would you say, are the great symphony composers of the 20th century?

        • Saxon Broken says:

          I have to agree with you: Nelsons/Boston playing Shostakovich has a fantastic reputation. Definitely something worth travelling to hear (the other combination that comes to mind for Shostakovich is V.Petrenko/Liverpool). Beethoven would be much less attractive.

  • jim says:

    Why is it necessary for everything to be slanted in such an unnecessarily negative way on this site? The Boston Symphony didn’t “mess up”. In fact, they responded to the unforeseeable crisis with aplomb and managed to deliver a concert despite the snafu. It’s always so easy to sit at your computer and second guess what should have been done, but every single suggestion made here could have had it’s own pitfalls all of which I’m sure our dyspeptic host would have also blamed on the BSO.
    I look at this site because it’s a good place to find out a lot of news from the music world. I just wish I didn’t so often feel like I need to go wash my hands after reading it.

    • Bill says:

      My reaction exactly – the orchestra didn’t mess anything up. No doubt if they had planned to use the train and something happened to cause it not to run, people would be asking why they didn’t fly!

    • John Kelly says:

      ………….I believe it’s what passes for “Journalism” in some quarters……………..(unfortunately)

  • CYM says:

    Marketing forces musicians to hustle from town to town, daily or almost daily.
    Not much time for sound check, rest. Regardless of the high quality of orchestras and performers, it has to be stressful and affect the highest level of music making.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      It isn’t “marketing forces” that make orchestras do this, but the sheer cost of touring (tens of thousands each day). Hence orchestras need to play as many concerts as they can, without too many free days. Otherwise the tour may not be viable.

  • Bruce says:

    By the way, playing a Beethoven symphony that you haven’t done in 2 years is not a big deal. All you’d need is “are we taking the first movement repeat?” and for the conductor not to pull any silly stunts (which a good orchestra would know to ignore in that situation anyway).

  • CYM says:

    Yes, but aren’t the ticket buyers cheated by listening to a good performance instead of a potentially great performance ?

    • Bruce says:

      Is that better or worse than no performance at all? Anyway there is a certain energy that comes into play when everyone in the orchestra knows they’re playing without a safety net. It can be quite exciting for the audience.

      (Also, I assume that in European venues there is the same “repertoire, guest artists, etc. subject to change” warning to ticket buyers that is common in the US.)

  • Ben says:

    The probability of fatality in a vehicular crash (1 in 113) is many many times higher than that pf airplane (1 in 9,737), per The Washington Post. The Union must feel strongly about that statistics. Thus this rule. Otherwise, why create an agreed rule when anybody is free to break it?

    This episode also highlights the contribution of the unsung heroes of any major orchestra: The librarians!

  • James Scott says:

    These sort of articles always say “the union” as if they arbitrarily make rules. Orchestra contracts are not dictated by the union (in any country – they all have their own unions). The players make it known what they want to have in their contracts to their representatives, which includes union officials, and then agreements are negotiated between the two parties. Managements have their desired rules as well – in the collective bargaining process both sides get some of what they want, and agree to some of what the other side wants.

    As far as this situation, I’m assuming the BSO management chose a charter flight initially, because it was the best option for them to get approximately 150 people (including staff, etc.) from one city to another on a schedule that allowed for players to get into their hotel rooms, find a place for dinner and get to the hall early enough to play their instruments in the space, etc. Also remember that a significant number of valuable instruments are being hand carried – good luck getting all of those in the overheads on a commercial flight or train.

    The idea that buses (not 1 bus – probably 3 for those numbers) could be easily booked for that many people on short notice in a foreign country (language barrier?), without personal contacts in the travel business, etc. is ridiculous. I think the BSO management deserves huge praise for finding a way to get an orchestra on stage that night, and I can also guarantee that the BSO musicians made many concessions to their contract in order to make that happen. What happened was the classic “Act of God” in contracts/etc. – no one can plan for mechanical problems on an airplane.

    As it happens, I’ve just been listening to the new BSO Shostakovich 4 & 11 recording – they sound absolutely stunning!

  • Elvira says:

    It’s hard to believe how foolish or naïve are the organizers not to take in consideration flights with problems:
    mechanical,strikes,wether,gates unavailable,etc etc.
    Everybody knows that arriving in time those days is close to a miracle !

    • Bill says:

      It may surprise you to know that statistics are kept on such things in the airline industry, and that decisions are made using them. Buses and trains also have problems with equipment failures, strikes, derailments, accidents, etc. that can upset the applecart. It’s an expensive business hauling an orchestra around the world and playing concerts away from home; you can’t arbitrarily lard up the schedule with extra travel days to protect against everything that might go wrong and expect to be able to afford the tour.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        In Britain something like 93-95 percent of long-distance trains arrive within 10 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. In Europe, only something like 70 percent of aeroplanes arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. The average delay is also considerably longer than for trains.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Reminds me of a long time time back when I was in Tucson for business (in the 80’s). The Chicago Symphony was scheduled to play. We sat there for a couple hours until it was determined that the CSO’s instrument truck was not going to make. Some of the players who carried instruments came out and did some warming up; trumpet players with gig bags. I would gladly have listened to an unrehearsed Beethoven Symphony (or anything by the CSO).

  • Lachera says:

    The way concert tours are planned, each day in a different city, there is little leeway for delayed transportation; it is a fact of life that, every now and then, the players or their stuff will not make on time in the next place. I have seen it happening a lot of times. Using cheap air carriers adds some extra risks, but I have seen trains delayed as well, buses breaking down, trucks being stopped at customs or in a strike protest. Missing an occasional concert is just the downside of sparing a lot of money by keeping orchestras on whirlwind moves instead of planning decent travel times that would probably double the expense of a concert tour making it unfeasible.