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

The World

A Hungarian orchestra returned home this week to Budapest after what was described as a thrilling all Dvorak concert at the Lincoln Center in New York.

The brass was "thunderous," the cellos were "furious" and the entire ensemble created a tempest" in the words of one critic.

But for a short while the concert performance was in doubt.

"The Budapest Festival Orchestra had two concerts at the Lincoln Center in New York, and we brought our instruments by cargo," says the BFO Managing Director Stefan Englert. "Along with the instruments we also brought the string bows."

But, there were seven bows belonging to the orchestra's string section that were seized as a result of new federal regulations banning the commercial import of elephant ivory.

Any musical instrument containing African elephant ivory may be brought into the country only if it is accompanied by documentation verifying that it was purchased before 2014.

But Stefan Englert insists the seized bows did not contain any elephant ivory and that he had  a certificate from a Hungarian expert to prove it.

Englert explains that at one time it was common for violin bows to be made with ornamental pieces of elephant ivory. "Not all of them have it, it's just in the tip. It's a small little part and traditionally ivory was used for it, the tip of the bow," she says.

The seizure posed a dilemma for the managing director. "Luckily we had good friends at the Lincoln Center and they helped us to get in touch with other professional musicians."

But Englert says using borrowed bows is tricky. "If someone is playing with a certain bow for a very long time it becomes part of the instrument, and you are used to it. All bows have a different character and it takes some time to get adjusted to a new bow, like a new instrument in a way."

Bans on the importation of ivory have gotten tougher. Illegal ivory trade is linked to the death of more than 35,000 African elephants per year.

Nearly all violin bow-makers have stopped using elephant ivory but historical authentication of old bows is sometimes a sketchy business.  

“I completely understand the concerns," says Englert. “But, what I don't understand is that there are instruments that have been built a very, very long time ago and why they cannot be imported because they contain ivory. It is not about producing new ivory for these instruments or for their bows. Plus we did everything that was required. We even had these certificates that there is no ivory, but still seven of the bows did not get through customs."

The seized bows were held by customs and only returned to the orchestra when it departed for Hungary, and after it paid a $525 fine.  

Englert says the whole episode should serve as a caution to other musicians and touring orchestras. But he says it did not undermine the BFO’s performance of Dvorak's "Symphony #8" at the LIncoln Center. He says the performances with the borrowed bows were magnificent.

"The 8th symphony is a special symphony of Dvorak, and this was just an incredible, intensive performance," he says.