When I left to work and study in England in 1998, my biggest source of anxiety was my violin. It is no Strad or Guarneri, but to me, it is a precious heirloom. I worried, not so much about taking it with me out of India, but about the questions I’d be asked upon bringing it back into India. It could be misconstrued as an overseas purchase, and I’d perhaps then be unfairly required to pay customs duty on it. I therefore tried to persuade immigration officials in Mumbai to document that I was taking it out of the country, but they steadfastly refused to do this. So it was a huge relief that I was not accosted when I returned home a decade later.
My concerns might seem a tad paranoid, but such situations keep cropping up. I was reminded of this when The Strad, the premier monthly music magazine for the string music world reported recently that Russian customs officials had seized Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Josef Špaček’s violin (an 1855 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume) as he was trying to leave their country. They alleged that he had failed to fill out proper documentation for the instrument when he entered Russia. Apparently there has been a spate of precious instruments leaving Russia in place of cheaper ones brought in. Špaček understandably refused to travel without his Guillaume, and the story ends well, as the paperwork was eventually sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. It nevertheless created a storm in the music world, as musicians fly around the world all the time with their instruments, and this now adds yet another perplexing dimension to the issue of travel.
Cellists are routinely penalised for carrying their instrument on board the aircraft and not checking it into the hold. It is now standard practice for them to buy an extra seat just for their instrument, which raises costs for everyone concerned, from the musicians themselves to the impresarios needing to pay their expenses for performing on tour.
I have seen amateur cellists travel with soft cases and then try to cram their cellos into overhead bins, but not all airlines allow even this, and the risk of damage is high.
One cellist lost her job in an orchestra for failing to carry her own instrument on tour, as she worried about possible damage when it was checked into the hold.
Prejudice against cellists can take bizarre forms even on land. A Hong Kong music student was threatened with a fine for carrying ‘oversized luggage’ on the city’s Mass Transit Railway. Such incidents are on the rise, with all ‘oversize’ instruments under suspicion. In South-East Asia, the guzheng (Chinese zither) faces this discrimination, and I am sure sitars, tanpuras and veenas must be difficult to travel with as well, in India.
Two months ago, double-bassist Karl Fenner had his instrument wrecked by SouthWest Airlines.
In 2008, Canadian musician Dave Carroll had his $3500 Taylor guitar broken by baggage handlers’ rough treatment when he flew United Airlines. He had checked in his guitar because of the difficulty with getting bulky instruments as carry-on luggage. When United Airlines reacted indifferently to his loss, he responded with a song and music video “United Breaks Guitars” that quickly went viral, with 150,000 views in a day and 15 million at last count in August 2015. United suffered a terrible fall in its reputation and its stocks. The successful campaign (now a trio of protest songs and videos) spawned Carroll’s book, “United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media.”
Last year, a Swiss youth orchestra were denied access onto a Singapore Airlines flight, not even allowing violins and violas as carry-on baggage. Another nightmare with checking in instruments apart from damage is the airlines sending them on to the wrong destination, or having them arrive too late to play a scheduled concert.
The other issues with travel are theft and loss. On the two occasions that violinist Hadar Rimon performed (and marvellously at that!) in Goa, I was struck by how she wouldn’t let her instrument out of her sight for even a second. There are enough historical precedents to warrant her watchfulness. The story of the brazen theft of the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman’s ‘Gibson’ Stradivarius at Carnegie Hall, no less, in 1936 is well-known in the music world. The story is stranger than fiction, but suffice it to say it surfaced nearly four decades after Huberman’s death in 1947. It is now in the more-than-capable hands of Joshua Bell.
Last September, the principal violist of the London Symphony Orchestra Edward Vandenspar accidentally forgot his ₤300,000 antique instrument and two bows, each worth ₤35,000 on a London train. Had it not been for CCTV on the train and the promptness of the British Transport Police, the story might not have had such a happy ending. Another London musician Zami Jalil, was not so lucky, when last June a London cabbie made off with his violin, viola and two bows, worth about ₤11,000.
I have an absent-minded musician friend who forgot a borrowed violin on a Mumbai train, and luckily retrieved it amid high drama, chasing after the train filmi style by road to get on it a few stops later. I also know of another who never got back his violin after forgetting it on a train in South India.
But surely pianists can’t have travel woes. They don’t travel with their instrument, do they? Well, not most of them: the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz took his Steinway concert grand piano on his historic 1986 tour of the USSR. András Schiff frequently tours with his exquisite 1921 ‘Wilhelm Backhaus’ Bechstein piano. Great pianists can literally command such an extravagance, as the transportation costs are huge.
The downside can also be huge, as Krystian Zimerman found to his chagrin, when US customs officials at New York’s JFK airport, in their post-9/11 heightened paranoia, confiscated his concert grand piano, and then proceeded to destroy it — just because they felt “the glue smelled funny.” Not funny enough to make Zimerman laugh, though.
(An edited version of this article was published on 1 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)