ASO Returns from Spain

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra returns from a triumphant tour of Spain

It’s been José-Luis Novo’s dream for years to lead the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra on an overseas concert tour, to share with the world what’s been building in Annapolis.


And from the moment the longtime artistic director of the orchestra lifted his baton for rehearsals in the Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid, to the final ovation and calls for yet another encore at the Auditorio Manuel de Falla in Granada, it was all he hoped for and more.


“After two encores they still would not stop clapping, and I had to take the orchestra off stage pretty much in every concert…” Novo said. “For the orchestra to feel that kind of support from an audience that didn’t know us, it was a huge deal.”


The ASO launched its groundbreaking tour of four Spanish cities on July 8 with its concert in Madrid and continued over the next 11 days in Zaragoza, Valencia, and Granada. The concerts featured soloist Pepe Romero, the renowned Spanish classical and flamenco guitarist.


It was the orchestra’s first overseas concert tour and was accomplished flawlessly, drawing large crowds during a record-setting heatwave that shut down much of working Europe over the summer. 


“In places like Valencia, where they have several beautiful beaches, it’s hard to bring people indoors in the summer. Everybody wants to be outside,” said Edgar Herrera, executive director of the symphony orchestra. “It was a nice surprise that we got good audiences at every concert. And then the last concert was actually sold out.


“People really liked the concerts. … They wanted more.”


Moving 76 musicians, their instruments and equipment plus support staff – as well as Friends of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra who paid to travel along – was no small undertaking. Minor hiccups, like having to change hotel rooms when the air conditioning was insufficient or figuring out a better way to move the cellos, were dealt with swiftly.


That allows the tour to focus on making good music together and enjoying a tour of Spain.

The trip was Kimberly Valerio’s first trip to Europe, and the orchestra’s principal flutist tried to make the most of it. As the orchestra moved between cities, she got to visit the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and the Alhambra palace in Granada.


“I could have stayed there forever,” she said.


While the purpose of the trip was More Music for More People in More Places – the five-year goal of the orchestra – some like Valerio were able to fit tourism into the tour.


“We actually had a lot of breathing room between concerts,” said Netanel Draiblate, concertmaster of the orchestra and a lead violinist. “People could sightsee a little bit, relax, have a day off most of the time in the new cities that we went to. So, it was really nice that way to not have to chase a concert every other day. And I think people really appreciated it.”


Yet the business of the tour was the music. 


“For me, one of the most special moments was when we had the dress rehearsal at the National Auditorium in Madrid, and the orchestra started playing and I could tell from the faces of our musicians they were thinking, oh my god, we sound so good,” Novo said. “They got so self-motivated because it was so, so invigorating to be in such a wonderful hall and realize how good our orchestra sounded. 


“And when we had the audience at the concert that evening and they would not stop clapping, we got the confirmation that they also liked what we were doing.” 


When the orchestra rehearsed with Romero, a beloved musical performing for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, Novo said he was delighted with the level of professionalism and talent. 


“We knew the program and we were ready for it,” Draiblate said.


The ASO was able to book the concerts in Spain in part because British orchestras that have often filled summer music festivals are touring less often in post-Brexit Europe. That also meant there was a great hunger among audiences in Spain. 


The music Novo selected for the tour was intended as a Pan American program, including works by Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff, Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo and others. The idea was to highlight an American orchestra’s ability to accept and embrace musical traditions from around the world and produce something unique.


The most sensitive piece was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with Romero, a musical piece that Spanish audiences feel strongly about.


“There was an immediate connection between our musicians, our soloist and our audience in Spain,” Novo said. “And that was fabulous because everyone realized that there was some kind of magic that only happens in live music, and it happened pretty much in each concert.”


That magic resulted in a sense of pride among the members of the orchestra.


Herrera recalls getting on the tour bus on one of those days when the group had to be on the road for three hours. He got a phone notification that the newspaper in the town they’d just left had posted a review by its music critic of the previous evening’s concert. He shared it with the musicians and the others on their WhatsApp message group. 


“Everybody was reading the review and you know when you start reading something that somebody else wrote to criticize, or to give a critique of your performance, you know, you kind of get a little nervous about it,” he said. “But the review was so good. I mean, it literally said that the ASO had been the best concert of the season: of the whole season.


That sent a positive vibe through the buses… That’s just one example of how much energy was present.”


One of the major goals of the trip was to come home with a better orchestra, one that has bonded through shared musical experiences. That’s already proving to be true.


Valerio, the principal flutist, said she’s decided to drop a commitment to another orchestra so she can focus more of her time on the Annapolis Symphony. She’s seen the orchestra grow tremendously in her 20 years as a performer, but the tour and the addition of another concert in the Masterworks Series helped her make the decision. 


“They’re playing more and in more places,” she said. “I decided I can make this work.”


Herrera said the Zaragoza performance is already available online at Symphony+, and a recording of the tour finale in Granada is in production. More is in the works.


A videographer from the University of Maryland traveled with the orchestra and is now editing what he captured as a documentary.


“He was able to film backstage and just regular daily life of the orchestra during the tour,” Herrera said. “So, we’re putting that together and we’re hoping we can release that before the end of the year.”


Additional overseas tours are being discussed. One of the reasons the tour was so successful was that it was a cooperative venture with The European Guitar Foundation, which was holding its annual Granada Guitar Festival while the ASO was in the city for its final concert. 


“It makes sense for us to go back and be part of festivals that are already happening because they already have their own marketing going on. They have so much more infrastructure,” Herrera said. 


As for locations, it could be the United States, it could be back to Europe, or it could be another part of the world.


“But honestly, I think we like Europe,” Herrera said.


Novo said audiences in Annapolis and during its Series@Strathmore will see a renewed sense of camaraderie when the orchestra opens its Masterwork Series on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 with “Celebrate America” with works by Copland, Barber, Smith and Boyer.


“I think that one of the things that I observed on the tour was how well and quickly our musicians were adjusting to each other, from the first concert in Madrid to the last concert in Granada,” he said. “The last concert was magical, not only because it was the last one, but it was special also because I was taking the orchestra on different routes – very subtle but different routes – and the orchestra was following so nicely with full trust. 


“It’s something that is very difficult to explain. But we’ve reached a point where we know who we are, we trust each other. And we trust that we’re going to find our path together. And that’s a wonderful place to be in.”