May 10: Vienna

One day, two dragons slayed.

monitor lizard

My bow protector.

The first one was really a lizard. From the genus Varanus. In common parlance, a monitor lizard. Apparently they’re endangered. And apparently Customs officials don’t like seeing their leather on violin bows. I didn’t know I had it, but it turns out I did.

Last summer I had this little strip of leather, about 1 1/2″x 3/4″ glued on to the end of my bow to protect the wood from oil and sweat from my fingers, and to prevent the maker’s stamp from being worn down by constant use. You see, my bow is very valuable. It’s a 19th century Parisian bow worth many thousands of dollars,* and it needs a lot of TLC.

The problem these days is that violins and bows use a lot of materials that are on the verboten list. Things like elephant ivory and pernambuco wood. And, as it turns out, varanus leather. I don’t have a problem with the regulations, just with all the paper work that’s involved. Fortunately, the Boston Symphony took care of most of that. All I had to do was supply the description of the materials from a reputable violin expert to the BSO and they’d handle the rest. My mistake was twofold: 1) I gave them documentation that preceded the protector being put on the bow; and 2) I had no idea it was varanus leather. I thought it was goat. (Mind you, I’d rather have a goat in my backyard than a monitor lizard,  but there are a lot more goats.)

So when the BSO shipped are instruments from the US to Germany, the customs guy, who apparently had the skill spot varanus leather a mile away, almost didn’t let my bow through. I tell you, if that had happened, I’m not sure I could have played the entire Mahler Ninth pizzicato. But though they did let it through I was worried about what’s going to happen at the end of the tour going home. There have been real horror stories of Stradivarius violins and the like being confiscated by overly exuberant customs officials for any number of reasons, or for no apparent reason at all. I didn’t want to end up in the same boat.

A few days ago I emailed the guy in New York who put the protector on and he confirmed that, yes indeedy, it was lizard leather. I decided I had to do something about it, and fast. So I emailed a bowmaker friend of mine in Salt Lake City, who told me if I wrapped the protector with a damp paper towel for 10 to 15 minutes, it should loosen the glue so I could remove the leather. I didn’t really like the idea of me putting something wet on the bow, but figured I’d give it a shot.

My violin was in the instrument trunk at Musikverein Hall, so my plan was to 1) walk there, 2) bring my violin back to my hotel room, and 3) get to work. Step one went smoothly, but then I turned the corner of the concert hall, and right there, in the very same building, I saw this sign:


Monitor lizard remover.

For those of you who understand less German than I do, it says: Violin Bow Maker.

There’s no other explanation; it had to have been preordained. I dropped the bow off at Mr. Ramsaier-GorbachRamsaier-Gorbach‘s shop, went for a caffe melange and apfelstrudel, and returned to the shop to find my bow sans monitor. I asked how much I owed. He said nothing. I said I must pay you something. He said five euros. I gave him ten. The offending protector is no more.

The second dragon we slayed was also at the Musikverein. This dragon was a metaphorical one for our performance of Mahler Ninth. As I’ve mentioned before, playing Mahler in Vienna, is akin to the Vienna Philharomonic playing West Side Story in New York. (Sort of.) Who knew how the audience would react?

This is what we had going for us: We’ve played the piece many times in the past month, and by now we know it pretty damn well. We’re playing in a hall that is historically and acoustically inspiring. I’ve had a chance to play Stradivarius violins over the years, and one thing I’ve learned from that experience is that if you play with the same force that you would in order to get the best sound out of lesser instruments, it’s actually counterproductive. It constrains an instrument like a Strad. You have to lay back a little and let the instrument have the freedom to do its own unique magic. The same is true of a great concert hall, like the Musikverein. The question was whether our modest rehearsal time there was adequate to tweak the necessary adjustments in our playing in order to create the most effective relationship between our playing and the hall’s acoustics.

Seems that inspiration won the day. My experience has been that Viennese audiences tend to be reserved. But tonight the response was a clearly spontaneous and sincere outpouring of approbation. A pretty proud moment for the BSO, I’d say.


My stand partner, Caroline Pliszka, and myself (the one with the eyeglasses) onstage at the Musikverein.

*If you can’t believe that bows could be that expensive, and want to get an entertaining education, you can try my murder mystery, “Devil’s Trill.”



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