Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Endangered materials add wrinkle to BSO’s overseas trip

Violinist Ellen Pendleton Troyer has her instrument inspected in preparation for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland next month. An instrument must be shown to have been legally imported or purchased in addition to being ‘legally crafted’ in the time it was made. (Courtesy Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

Violinist Ellen Pendleton Troyer has her instrument inspected in preparation for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland next month. An instrument must be shown to have been legally imported or purchased in addition to being ‘legally crafted’ in the time it was made. (Courtesy Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

When David Coombs travels abroad next month with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra he will carry two kinds of identification forms: one for himself and one for his bassoon.

That’s because the instrument is adorned with ivory, meaning it – along with 31 other instruments that were made with endangered plants or animals – had to receive special permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to leave the country for the BSO’s tour next month through the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Regulations “can potentially prevent someone from bringing the instrument they prefer to bring,” said Rebecca Cain, the BSO’s director of operations, noting two string musicians decided not to bring bows with whale bones in their tips.

Almost all of the endangered materials are found on string instruments and bows – including elephant ivory, sea turtle shell and Brazilian rosewood – but some are found in embellishments of instruments and have no effect on the sound.

“Orchestras need to understand what materials they are traveling with, what rules apply, and how to navigate within those rules,” said Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras.

Orchestras like the BSO often reach out to advocacy groups like the League of American Orchestras to help navigate these permit requirements and regulations, as it can be a huge commitment of time and resources while also planning an international tour, Noonan said.

Tighter regulations

A 1975 international treaty established protections for more than 30,000 species of animals and plants. But the regulations expanded and intensified after President Barack Obama signed an executive order in February 2014 in response to a conservation crisis related to African elephants, said Noonan.

Musicians, however, are exempt under the regulations if they can prove their instruments are not contributing to poaching or trafficking threats, Nooman said.

“That is why this permit process was created in the first place,” Nooman said.

To receive a permit, an instrument must be shown to have been legally imported or purchased in addition to being “legally crafted” in the time it was made – though every species has a different regulation for what legally crafted means because the regulations can be different for each species.

Pernambuco wood, for instance, which is used to make bows, is a protected substance that does not require a permit. Otherwise, the BSO would have to apply for 30 additional permits, Cain said. Mother of pearl, monitor lizard, shark skin, ebony or rosewoods from outside of Brazil also do not require permits outside of special circumstances.

Permitting process

To satisfy regulators, the permits often consist of a bill of sale and an affidavit testifying that the instrument was crafted and purchased legally. One way to prove this is by proving an instrument was made and sometimes repaired before the regulations were established.

“An instrument can have a lifespan of hundreds of years,” said Noonan. “The older the instrument, the easier it is to satisfy the legally crafted part.”

As it prepared for its trip, the BSO hired Christopher Germain, a luthier from Philadelphia, to evaluate an instrument’s age and identify any endangered materials in its composition, said Cain. Germain, who stumbled into assessing orchestral instruments after 30 years of making and repairing string instruments, signed an affidavit as part of each evaluation.

Germain’s evaluation of Coombs’ bassoon only took a few minutes. The luthier quickly identified ivory in the bell but Coombs could prove his instrument was made in Germany in 1920, more than 50 years before the ivory restrictions began.

His bassoon will travel with his proof of purchase and Germain’s description of composition to prove to customs officials that it was constructed legally.

Ports to concert halls

Once a permit has been obtained – about a six-week process – instruments have to be inspected at every port coming and going. Orchestras touring internationally also can only go through ports where U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees are stationed to check instruments.

“Because these ports are limited, it could mean a greater expense to reorient an orchestra to a different port,” Noonan said.

Some musicians might try to alter their instruments and replace their endangered parts with synthetic substitutes. In preparing for the BSO’s tour, several bassoonists were considering removing the ivory from the bells of their instruments and replacing it with a plastic, Coombs said. But most musicians would never consider altering their instruments – and not just because of a potential change in sound, Noonan said.

“Musicians make huge financial investments in their instruments and often count on their resale for their retirement,” Noonan said. “They want to be able to leave a country and come back in with the same instrument.”

Coombs purchased his bassoon for $35,000 and his contrabassoon for nearly $50,000. Just a bow alone can be as much as $20,000, he said.

“Bassoons are very complicated musically, it’s nearly impossible to make two exactly the same,” Coombs said. “You learn the familiarities of that instrument for months or years. Any professional instrumentalist can’t just switch if they want to sound their best.”


To purchase a reprint of this article, contact reprints@thedailyrecord.com.