Why a Hungarian orchestra had to borrow seven violin bows from friends

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Aaron Schachter: Finally today, a tale about overcoming musical hardship. It stars an orchestra from Hungary that was invited to play at Lincoln Center in New York. The orchestra wowed the critics with a "stunning all-Dvorak performance." But for awhile, the performance was in doubt. The orchestra had run afoul of a federal regulation that bans anyone from bringing ivory into the US. For an explanation, we reached orchestra manager Stefan Englert on his cellphone. Stefan Englert: he Budapest Festival Orchestra had two concerts at the Lincoln Center in New York, and we brought our instruments by cargo. With the instruments, we brought also the string bows and as we knew that the regulations for the import of ivory has tightened up, we made photos and we got a certificate that said it did not contain ivory and we were a bit surprised when we arrived that 7 of the bows didn't go through customs. We couldn't take them to our concert in New York. Schachter: Why do bows have ivory in them? Englert: Not all of them have it, it's just in the tip. It's a small, little part and just traditionally ivory was used for that. Schachter: The shiny bit at the end, right? Englert: Yes, it's just the tip of the bow. Schachter: How did you deal with the problem here when you were in the US? Englert: We had to find a solution and luckily we had good friends at the Lincoln Center and they helped us to get in touch with other professional musicians and we rented bows from them, which is of course tricky since if someone is playing with a bow for a very, very long time, it's part of an instrument and you're used to a certain bow. All bows have a different characteristic and it takes some time to get adjusted to a new bowl. It's like a new instrument in a way. Schachter: Presumably the other musicians from Lincoln Center have pretty good bows, no? Englert: They have pretty good bows but the point is even if you have a pretty good instrument but then all of a sudden you play on a stradivari, it doesn't mean automatically that you can cope with it so easily because it all has a different characteristic. They all have different sizes, different weights, and the human body and the automatism of playing is just used to it. Schachter: Do you understand the US concern though? Certainly illegal ivory is a pretty big problem worldwide and if people are seeing this lovely stuff on the end of a bow it could suggest to them that ivory is worth having. Englert: I completely understand the concerns but what I don't understand is that they are instruments that have been built a very, very long time ago, that they cannot be imported since these instruments are built, this ivory is used, it's not about producing new ivory for this instrument of other bows. Plus, we did everything that was required. We even did the passports, we even had certificate saying that there was no ivory but still 7 of the bows didn't go through. Schachter: Did you get them back in the end? Englert: We got them back yesterday when we left. We had to be there at 10 o'clock in the morning with the inspector and we had to pay a fine, of course, but we got them back luckily. Schachter: So because of this using of different bows, did the Dvorak actually sound differently? Englert: I don't think it sounded very differently since it's a group and basically our musicians are highly flexible, they had some time to adjust to it. At the very beginning, there's a certain kind of anxiety or insecurity because you have to adjust to new things and that's always an issue with this kind of complex production of music. But the performances have been magnificent. It's just a special symphony of Dvorak and this was just an incredible, intensive performance. Schachter: Stefan Englert, many thanks. Englert: You're welcome. Schachter: The Budapest Festival Orchestra playing here with borrowed bows wraps up the show today.