Travel Woes Update: Violinist Rachel Barton Pine stranded in Phoenix

U.S. Airways Strikes Again

By Peter Alexander

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine with her violin

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine with her violin

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine—who appeared with the Boulder Philharmonic in 2014—was stranded overnight in Phoenix when U.S. Airways declined to make room for her 1742 Guarneri del Gesú violin in the cabin of her flight.

This comes after two recent incidents reported here of string basses that were seriously damaged in transit (see below). U.S. Airways is the same airline that last year refused to take the bass of Ranaan Meyer of Time for Three as checked baggage, as is normal for traveling bassists.

Barton Pine's husband and daughter sleeping in the Phoenix Airport. Photo via

Barton Pine’s husband and daughter sleeping in the airport. Photo posted by Rachel Barton Pine, via

As reported on Laurie Niles’ blog, Barton Pine was traveling with her husband and four-year-old daughter, who ended up sleeping on the floor of the Phoenix Airport overnight. (Barton Pine did not try to sleep, since someone had to watch her priceless instrument overnight. She reports spending the time doing paperwork.)

Barton Pine and her family did get a flight out of Phoenix the next morning. The story at has full details.

Is it a hex? Another bass smashed on a flight from Atlanta

U of GA professor forced to cancel recital in Little Rock

By Peter Alexander

Now is not a good time to be flying from Atlanta with your double bass.

Milton Masciadri

Milton Masciadri

On Saturday, just days after Colorado Symphony member Karl Fenner’s bass was smashed on a flight form Atlanta to Denver, University of Georgia faculty member Milton Masciadri was scheduled to play a recital in Little Rock, Ark. But when he arrived in Little Rock from Atlanta, he discovered that he had to cancel the recital.

As first reported on the Website Slipped Disc, his bass has been smashed and the neck broken, just like Fenner’s instrument, during the flight.

Masciadri’s bass sadly is a particularly rare one, made in 1690 by a member of the Testore family of Milan, Italy—esteemed as one of the most important early builders of double basses. Their instruments are among the most sought after, and most expensive, double basses in the world.

Masciadri posted this photo of his damaged bass on Facebook

Masciadri posted this photo of his damaged bass on Facebook

In his case, the airline appears not to have been at fault. Masciadri has reported that “after I checked the instrument it went to TSA [Transportation Security Administration] for inspection but when it arrived in Arkansas they had failed to put back on the security belts that the trunk has inside. The airline had no reason to open the trunk so its obvious that TSA was the one [responsible].”

In Fenner’s case, the bassist had himself opened and re-closed the case after his instrument had been cleared by TSA. This seems a reasonable procedure, so that a valuable and delicate musical instrument can be handled safely and replaced in the case securely. It is possible that Fenner’s case fell out of a cart and was run over sometime after it was checked through by the airline.

Masciadri reported that he has contacted the TSA, and they have sent him “a long report to be filed.” He added that the airline has been assisting him, and that the instrument is insured.

The University of Georgia professor had planned to use the bass in two prominent upcoming performances: at the Ushuaia International Music Festival in Argentina, and a solo appearance with the Korean Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 27. The Carnegie Hall concert is part of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary world tour, and also part of UNESCO’s 70th anniversary celebration.

# # # # #

Edited to add photo of Masciadri’s bass Sept. 22.

Edited for clarity Sept. 23.

Colorado Symphony bass player’s instrument smashed after successful audition

Elation and despair marked Karl Fenner’s day

By Peter Alexander

Bassist Karl Fenner and his damaged string bass

Bassist Karl Fenner and his damaged string bass at Denver International Airport

The nightmares for double bass players just got a lot worse.

There has been another incident involving a double bass and travel, but this one is more troubling than most. You may recall that about a year ago, bassist Ranaan Meyer of Time for Three had his instrument refused by U.S. Airways and had to fly another airline to get home from a performance on “Dancing with the Stars” in Los Angeles.

This time it’s much worse, and closer to home for Colorado musicians: Bassist Karl Fenner of the Colorado Symphony was returning home to Denver by Southwest Airlines from a successful audition with the Atlanta Symphony. As reported in Strad Magazine today (Sept. 17), he had checked his bass into the hold, as is required for double basses. He has a heavy-duty fiberglass case that he has used safely for 11 years of travel, but this time when he arrived, he found that the top of the case had been smashed open and the neck of the bass had been sheared off below the scroll.

Fenner posted photos of the damage on his facebook page, with the comment “Thanks Southwest Airlines and or TSA Atlanta. I’ve trusted you with my baby for 9 years and then this. The heavy duty case was heavily damaged too. Very disappointed. How?”

DB_Broken3The accident happened on Wednesday (Sept. 16). Fenner had been through three rounds of auditions in Atlanta, and was the top choice for the two open stringed bass positions with the orchestra. (Two other players will vie for the second position.) He was offered a contract on the spot, and so he left Atlanta in great spirits.

When he returned to Denver, the bass did not show up in the oversize luggage carousel. After waiting a few minutes, he walked into the airline’s baggage claim office, where he saw the case immediately.

“It was there for me, because obviously they noticed that the case itself was incredibly damaged,” he said. “My heavy-duty protective travel case was damaged, and they wanted me to open it up. When I opened it up and took [the bass] out of the case, I could feel it before I even took it out of the inner case. The neck was completely snapped in two.

“It was certainly not a good feeling. It was made slightly better by the fact they were quite helpful. They took a lot of pictures of all of the evidence themselves to put into my files.”

Kenner's smashed fiberglass travel case

Kenner’s smashed fiberglass travel case

Normally, a fiberglass travel case is almost indestructible. One possibility that the airline suggested was that the case had fallen out of a baggage cart or fork lift and had been run over.

Fenner continues to be in contact with Southwest Airlines. “I received a private message on facebook saying ‘please call me, we really want to make this right with you,’“ he says. “I talked with [an airline representative] for about 10 minutes today. We haven’t gotten very far in the process yet, but she did admit that it is obvious that it is the airline’s fault, and nobody on their end is going to dispute that.”

Fenner estimates that a good quality travel case for a double bass costs about $3,000, and the instrument, which he has had for nine years, cost more than his car. The instrument itself is insured through the Colorado Symphony. It can be repaired, to the extent that a new neck and fingerboard can be grafted onto the body. There is always a risk, though, because there is no guarantee that with such extensive repairs, the instrument will feel the same to the player.

“I know musicians who’ve had damage done to their instrument and they’ve been able to get it repaired, but it was just never the same,” Fenner says.

Repairs will probably take several months. In the meantime Fenner has the possibility of using other instruments, both in Denver and in Atlanta. He will continue to play with the Colorado Symphony during the fall, and plans to join the Atlanta Symphony after the first of the year.

Further updates to Fenner’s story will be posted here as appropriate.

# # # # #

While the damage Fenner’s instrument sustained is an exception, it is not without precedent. One bass player I spoke with reported seeing a $200,000 bass in a repair shop with damage similar to Fenner’s: “The neck had been sheered off because the case had been left hanging out of the truck and passed through a door.”

Beyond such extreme situations, bass players always face challenges when traveling with their instruments. Recent regulations mandate conditions under which airlines must take smaller instruments, including violins and violas, into the cabin. Cellists usually purchase an additional seat for their instruments to travel with them. But string basses are too large to go into the cabin and must travel in the luggage compartment. Here the regulations seem not to be applied consistently, as Meyer’s adventure last year showed.

Several bass players told me stories of frustrations and setbacks when traveling. They did not want their names used, for fear of future difficulties with airline employees, but agreed to have their stories reported.

“It’s always been dodgy traveling with a bass,” one of them said. “It seems as though it is arbitrary depending on the day and the whim of the pilot or manager behind the desk. If the player has a history of traveling with the airline already, there have never been issues, and more travel is planned, there is no excuse for inconsistently applying a policy arbitrarily.”

A professional bass teacher and soloist reported to me that he no longer takes his instrument on airplanes at all. He once went to Europe with his bass, but was not allowed to bring it back on the same airline that had taken it on the outbound flight. The gate agent suggested he call FedEx.

“When you travel with a bass, you have nothing you can do against the will of the person behind the desk,” he said. “I’ve stopped traveling with my bass internationally and always choose to drive if the distance allows domestically. I just performed a concerto with an orchestra (overseas) on a completely foreign bass. I only had two days to get used to the instrument. Is that really my preference? No. Do I have a choice? Once again, no.”

Ironically, the airline that bass players all agreed was the easiest to work with is Southwest Airlines.

Boulder Phil opens season with fairy tales and virtuosity

Two contrasting concertos contribute to a well balanced program

By Peter Alexander

Boulder Phil Music Director Michael Butterman

Boulder Phil Music Director Michael Butterman

The Boulder Philharmonic opened its 2015–16 season last night (Sept. 13) in Macky Auditorium with an intriguing mix of ingredients that added up to a well balanced—and well received—program.

Music Director Michael Butterman, returning for his tenth season with the orchestra, opened the program with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The unusual addition of two soloists filled out the program, with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, performing The Storyteller by Korine Fujiwara, a concerto for violin and strings that was written for him; and Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero playing Rachmaninoff’s massive Second Piano Concerto.

The two concertos provided a nice contrast. Fujiwara’s Storyteller is a lovely, cheerful piece very much in the playful spirit of the Japanese fairy tales they portray, while Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto is one of the great virtuoso challenges of the pianist’s repertoire. The two pieces balanced one another nicely, and the Ravel added an opening touch of color that was very engaging.

Butterman and the orchestra presented Ravel’s original suite of five movements—“The Pavane of Sleeping Beauty,” “Tom Thumb,” “Empress of the Pagodas,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Fairy Garden”—and not the seven-movement ballet suite that the program listed. The performance was marked by delicate playing from the winds and a sense of magic that is largely created by Ravel’s brilliant sense of orchestral color.

Charles Wetherbee

Charles Wetherbee

After fulfilling his concertmaster duties for the Ravel, Wetherbee left the stage and returned in a dark red jacket that somehow evoked the storyteller of the concerto’s title. The piece opens with a long, genial violin solo, as if Wetherbee were saying “Come, gather around, and I will tell you stories of magic and wonder.”

After this inviting opening, played warmly by Wetherbee, the concerto goes into a largely episodic series of scenes that sound descriptive—of what being largely left to the imagination of the audience, even though Fujiwara had mentioned earlier that there were slamming doors, cicadas and battle scenes within the score. The various moods and characters are colorfully evoked by the string orchestra.

A string player who knows well how to write for the violin, Fujiwara fills the solo part with graceful lines and ornamented passages that always seem purposeful. There is no great momentum developed; it is more as if there is some mysterious purpose unfolding, but one that lacks deep threat or tumult.

A special word should be said for the slow movement, where Fujiwara honors the many maltreated women of folk legends with music of gentle, compassionate beauty. Wetherbee played with great sweetness of sound and sure technique. Though lacking bravura display, The Storyteller is an accessible and charming concerto that would create a welcome moment of comfort next to more dramatic fare.

Pianist Gabriela Montero. Photo by Shelley Mosman

Pianist Gabriela Montero. Photo by Shelley Mosman

Montero gave a steely, powerful performance of Rachmaninoff’s concerto. Although I found her sound hard-edged in the louder passages, her dynamic control was impressive, ranging from thundering octaves to delicate, whispering filigree. She showed great technical control of Rachmaninoff’s most fearsome passages and created an exciting sense of momentum for the climaxes.

The orchestra under Butterman played with a fullness of sound, but without the plush cushion of strings that best suits Rachmaninoff’s Romantic score. In the loudest passages the brass dominated the sound, and elsewhere the string section is not quite large enough to pull off the rich sonic embrace that larger orchestras can create. There were a few moments of push and pull between pianist and orchestra, perhaps the result of short rehearsal times. Mostly it was not obvious, except when Montero ended the first movement just ahead of the orchestra.

All shortcomings aside, the performance built to a splendid finish, and Boulder’s delighted audience answered with loud cheers and a standing ovation. After several bows, Montero came on stage with a microphone and said that she would like to improvise her encore. She explained that she has improvised since childhood, telling stories in music, and that it seemed to happen without her knowing how. “I am very much a witness,” she said, “as are you.”

She asked for a tune from the audience, and one person offered “Row, Row, Row your Boat”—actually a brilliant suggestion, since the simplest melodies provide the greatest scope for creative variation. After playing the tune alone three times while possibly working out an idea or two in her mind—unconsciously?—Montero launched into a remarkable seven or eight minute expansion of the well known tune, filled with surprising key changes, unexpected textures, sudden appearances of the unadorned tune, and a dazzling variety of sounds. A sudden turn to a lilting, swingy style drew chuckles form the audience before she ended with a final brash flourish.

This was as stunning a display of improvisational brilliance as I have ever heard from a classical pianist—and then some. The encore alone was well worthy of the standing ovation; I would happily have stayed for many more.

Telling Stories in music

Boulder Philharmonic opens 2015–16 season with two soloists

By Peter Alexander

Pianist Gabriela Montero. Photo by Shelley Mosman

Pianist Gabriela Montero. Photo by Shelley Mosman

The Boulder Philharmonic’s 2015–16 season is titled “Reflections: The Spirit of Boulder,” but the orchestra will open the season by telling stories.

The season’s opening concert under music director Michael Butterman will be at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13, in Macky Auditorium — a departure from the orchestra’s standard 7:30 p.m. Saturday concert dates.

The program will feature music that tells stories, two soloists with their own stories, and one great concerto that is a story in itself. Butterman will conduct Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; The Storyteller for violin and orchestra, inspired by Japanese folk tales and written by Korine Fujiwara for the orchestra’s concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee; and Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the piece that salvaged the composer’s career, performed with pianist Gabriela Montero, who has been acclaimed both as “an exciting pianist” (The New York Times) and for her “spectacular improvisation” (Cincinnati Enquirer).

That’s a lot of stories for one concert.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

# # # # #

Concertmaster Charles Wetherbee

Concertmaster Charles Wetherbee

Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra: Opening Night
Michael Butterman, director, with
Charles Wetherbee, violin, and Gabriela Montero, piano

Ravel: Mother Goose Suite
Korine Fujiwara: The Storyteller for violin and orchestra
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2

7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13 (Note the time and day)
CU Macky Auditorium