February 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Future's bright for DSO as it preps for Florida tour

Orchestra will play 6 shows in 5 cities, plus other outreach

Hilary Hahn will perform Brahms' Violin Concerto in Naples. (Peter Miller)

Things have been looking particularly sunny for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra of late.

First, the organization closed out fiscal 2013 with a balanced budget. Then, in January, a three-year contract was ratified — eight months before the deadline.

The bright news continues, in both a figurative and literal sense: The DSO and Music Director Leonard Slatkin are headed to the Sunshine State Feb. 25-March 4. The southern Florida tour includes six concerts in five cities: West Palm Beach (Feb. 25-26), Miami (Feb. 28), Vero Beach (March 2), Sarasota (March 3) and Naples (March 4).

Tough gig, eh, especially considering our brutal winter?

Although it may be tempting for winter-weary Detroiters to envy the musicians spending time in sunnier climes, there won’t be a lot of time for lolling under swaying palms or soaking up the rays on the beach. They have work to do.

The repertoire is more expansive than it was on the DSO’s last Florida tour in 2010. Plus, there are additional stops in hospitals and senior-living centers.

And as musical ambassadors, they know they have to shine, so it reflects favorably on Detroit.

But is touring, which is expensive and time-consuming, really that important? You bet, says Slatkin.

“I think any institution that prides itself on its artistic product needs to export it once in a while, for a couple of reasons,” the maestro says from France, where he’s also music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon.

“One, it shows other people what is going on in our city of a truly positive nature, and it’s good for the orchestra to feel needed and appreciated in other places.”

Florida gave the DSO plenty of love during its 2010 tour, and so did New York City last May, when the orchestra played two concerts in Carnegie Hall.

Programming for the upcoming tour is diverse, ranging from favorites like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Ravel’s “Bolero”to lesser-known works such as Gould’s “Spirituals” and Copland’s “Three Latin American Sketches.”

The DSO is adding extra firepower with two formidable soloists: pianist Olga Kern, who last performed with the DSO in 2012, and violinist Hilary Hahn, who tackled Nielsen’s Violin Concerto last month in Orchestra Hall. Kern will appear in five concerts, alternating Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with Prokofiev’s knuckle-breaking Piano Concerto No. 1. Hahn will appear only on the orchestra’s last stop in Naples, playing Brahms’ beloved Violin Concerto.

But a tour of this scope presents a challenge because of playing in various halls with different acoustics. However, instead of adapting to the venue, Slatkin tries to make the sound as similar to what would be heard at Orchestra Hall.

“We try to bring our sound to a particular venue as opposed to sounding different in different places we go,” he says.

“For example, if a hall is on the dry side — that means it doesn’t have so much reverberation — we’ll emphasize our warm sound by perhaps not playing as aggressively as we might normally. On the other hand, if a hall is wet, or has a lot of reverberation, we have to adjust tempos and other things to bring the maximum amount of clarity similar to what there is in Orchestra Hall.”

Smaller groups will perform at Palm Beach Children’s Hospital, Hospice of Palm Beach County and MorseLife Senior Living in West Palm Beach.

Slatkin says such outreach performances are vital for a modern orchestra’s health.

“It’s becoming more and more clear that orchestras have got to find other ways to reach the public through either community service or going into schools to spread the word of the value of classical music in the 21st century,” he says.

The tour, sponsored by Cadillac and the General Motors Foundation, was made possible thanks to a $400,000 grant from the GM Foundation. Slatkin says it points to the recovering health of the auto industry and its investment in the arts.

“GM feels confident in the value of the arts and they’re now in a financial position to be able to help,” he says. “We have our Internet broadcasts that Ford graciously sponsors as well. The auto companies are returning to the place they were several years ago. That’s a really good sign for everybody.”

And an appropriately sunny outlook as the orchestra embarks for Florida.

George Bulanda is a freelance writer.

Pianist Olga Kern will alternate two pieces over five concerts. (Fernando Baez)