The celebrated cellist Alban Gergardt suffered a terrible loss when US airport security agents carelessly snapped his best bow in half. In an exclusive article for Slipped Disc, Alban explains exactly what happened.
I have been travelling internationally for almost 25 years, hopping back and forth between continents. As I am a rather trusting person in possession of a very strong cello case (Alan Stevenson), I am one of the few cellists who travels without buying an extra seat for the cello. I check my poor Goffriller into the hold with the suitcases.
The only times my cello got damaged – twice – was when I had a second ticket and the case fell to the ground. Nothing major, a little crack which was easily be glued, and absolutely my fault. The baggage handlers never us did any harm.
Until February 6 2013: I left Berlin via Brussels and Chicago to rehearse Prokofiev’s Cellosymphony in Madison, WI. When the Brussels-Chicago flight got cancelled I knew this was not my day. Re-routed via Washington I was going to arrive just at the end of my only rehearsal for that tricky piece. The orchestra graciously agreed to pick me up by car from Chicago Airport which was going to give me at least half an hour with the Madison Symphony (at 4:30 am Berlin time…).
Upon my arrival at Washington Dulles Airport I routinely checked that my cello had survived the trip. It was even better in tune than after a performance of the Cellosymphony! Something inside told me I should try to get it through security and check it at the gate, but as I absolutely hate confrontation with anybody, especially airline and security officials, I opted for the normal recheck and gave my cello to one of the baggage handlers who promised to take great care of it.
In Chicago I waited more than 40 minutes until I finally received the cello, fifteen minutes after the suitcase. My fatigue disappeared at once after opening my cello case: the cello seemed alright, but my beloved Heinrich-Knopf-bow stuck half in its mounting, the other half, broken off, only tied together by the hair, was dangling around the fingerboard, a shocking and rather surreal picture. A bad curse came from my exhausted lips and the United Airlines officials knew they were in for some tough time with this little, angry, pale German cellist trying to explain to them that the bow is actually what counts most for a string player and losing one’s bow means almost losing one’s voice.
I was never attached to any cello in my life, but the bows I played on in the past 12 years I grew as fond of as I have never done to any object in my life. My first good bow I bought for the cost of a (very nice) Mercedes in 2001. I never thought I would spend that kind of money on a bow, but after trying it in New York I fell in love; I had found my voice. When it broke in a concert couple of months later a world collapsed around me, and even though it had broken at the tip where it could be fixed, I had nightmares from that day on that it could happen again.
The value was lost anyway (a broken bow is like a stamp – once broken it’s practically worthless, even though it might play as well as before), but I felt my cello playing depended on it. When it broke for the third time last April during a dress rehearsal of the Dvorak Concerto with the Hallé Orchestra (5 minutes later my substitute bow broke at the same place, absolutely unheard of!), the bowmaker, who had repaired it the previous times, told me that now there was no chance for another repair – it needed a new tip which might alter the sound for ever.
But he was able to sell me a wonderful old German bow (by Heinrich Knopf) which he altered a bit to make it more similar to my beloved broken bow (by Nikolaus Kittel, who might not have built bows himself but bought sticks from other makers, bending them in a different way before putting his stamp on them. Among his distributors was: Heinrich Knopf!), et voilá, the bow played as beautifully if not better than my “Kittel”.
So what happened to the Knopf on February 6?! The TSA (Transportation Security Agency) in Washington, DC, not trusting the X-Ray-image felt the need to open the case. They took the cello out in my absence, put it back in, carelessly detaching the bow partly from its mounting and finally slamming the case shut, in the process breaking the bow right in the middle of the bridge of the cello. Quite a miracle the cello didn’t implode under that stress. How do I know they opened the cello case? They were stupid enough to slip a “notice of baggage inspection” into the case!
So what did Alban do next? We await a second instalment from travels with a cello, and a broken bow.