It was a close call. I’m glad I didn’t know about it at the time. I’m not much of a Nervous Nellie, but some things can give me a little indigestion or a sleepless night.
We artistic director types worry mostly about illness or accidents. A sprained arm or wrist can be really bad for a string player in particular — put them out of commission mighty fast.
My wife, Jean, our flutist, recently carried a plastic bag of groceries that was filled with too many heavy items. The next morning, her finger was purple and swollen enough that her ring wouldn’t come off. Fortunately, she could still move the finger well enough to play, which was good since she had a significant part in the concert that evening.
However, on my artistic director’s worry list, jail is pretty far down the page.
Now, I will admit that I work amongst a pretty shady group. They will goose the tempo just to show off, or play a little louder just because they think their part is important. I’ve seen all kinds of wanton behavior of this type. But they are quite cunning and seem to know just what they can get away with.
So imagine my disbelief when I found out that one of our prime players was incarcerated on foreign soil, and another just barely escaped such indignities. Two members of Midsummer’s Music involved in an international incident? Our season opener in jeopardy? Be still my heart. Here’s how it went down with my Lavender Hill Mob.
As many of you know, two of our star players — David Perry, violin, and Sally Chisholm, viola — are members of the Pro Arte Quartet, the string quartet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is a world-class group and happens to be the longest continuously performing string quartet in the world. It recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and was invited to perform in Belgium, where the group was first formed. That’s where the trouble began.
Have you ever heard of CITES? It’s the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, something the United Nations adopted and 173 countries have signed onto, that attempts to deal with endangered species. Its purpose is to prevent the movement or importation of materials that are on the list between signatory countries. To date, about 28,000 plant and 5,000 animal species have been added to the list.
Ivory is one such item. You have heard the expression “tickling the ivories.” The top surface of the keys on pianos used to be made of ivory. Now the keys are surfaced with plastic. The top white rings on bassoons used to be made of ivory. Not now.
What you probably don’t know is that a very small amount of ivory is embedded in the frog (the part held by the fingers) of most of the premier bows used by string players – bows that are several hundred years old.
The recent adoption of the CITES treaty is supposed to prevent the current use of these materials and their trade across international borders. It was never intended to deal with instruments or items made two or three centuries ago. The problem is it’s hard to prove your bow and the elephant that donated that small bit of ivory on the frog were both from the 18th century.
This subject has become a very hot topic in musical circles, especially with orchestras and ensembles that tour. The recommended solution is to get a “passport” for your bow (or other ivory-bearing musical item). The problem is, the procedure is very time consuming and is very new to the customs officials dealing with it. Passports for humans — OK. Passports for violas — huh?
David decided to take an alternate violin bow without any ivory to be safe. Sally’s case was more complicated.
Her very fine 18th-century viola is actually inlaid with ivory. She didn’t want to take a substitute instrument — and that’s how Sally Chisholm ended up in the clink. Despite the fact that she had been meticulous in preparing her instrument’s “passport,” the bureaucrats didn’t have a clue. Instead of sailing through customs in Belgium, she got sequestered by the gendarmes.
Fortunately the group was performing at the invitation of King Philippe of Belgium. After fruitless appeals farther down the ladder by David and others, the king was contacted, and his emissary resolved the situation. After all, the king wanted to hear David and Sally and their colleagues perform.
Had it not been for that, we might still be waiting for Sally here in Door County because, to my knowledge, we don’t have any captive Belgian musicians to use in a hostage trade.
Sally moves on to the Marlboro Festival in Vermont after this weekend, but you still have a chance to hear her ivory-studded viola and her gold-plated sound just the way the king did. Thank goodness we have influence among European royalty.