For a string player, a great instrument is only half the equipment battle. A phenomenal bow is the other half, providing finesse, tone, and various articulations. Bows are not only vital to phrasing and color, but sometimes suited to particular playing styles. Therefore it is common for an instrumentalist to own many bows to facilitate stylistic shifts. A bow collection is also much more affordable for string players than an instrument collection.
I find it interesting to try bows of various origins, weights, and styles, regardless of my intent to buy. This brings me to my story—one that starts with neither an intention to try, nor to buy, a bow.
One day I found myself at the Tarisio auction house in New York City (a premier auction house for stringed instruments and bows based in NYC and London) to return an instrument I had been trying that week. There was an auction only a few days away and the office was bustling with eager buyers. One such buyer was a Russian man who noticed me carrying a cello case. As I was making my way out he asked, “Are you a cellist?” I replied in the affirmative. He continued, “Would you consider helping me by trying the various cellos so I can hear how they sound?”
That afternoon I had neither appointments nor engagements, and I thought this exercise could be fun, not to mention a good deed!
So we went to a room and he brought me the first of many cellos to try. I sat down and realized an obvious obstacle—I had no bow! As I was just returning an instrument, I hadn’t bothered to bring one. As the auction had many cello bows as well as cellos, the gentleman agreed to fetch me a bow from the auction. He did so in haste—he was very considerate and appreciative of my aid and time. So I began.
As this was for his benefit, I played the same few excerpts on each cello, not aiming to draw conclusions myself. He took notes on each instrument’s unique sound, and asked for my thoughts occasionally. Turns out he was sent by another Russian man to examine the offerings of the auction. This other man was a collector, and relied heavily on the advice of my new friend.
As I played, I began noticing one common characteristic: the bow was a superb implement. I took a look at it. The tip looked like a Dodd (a very well-known English bow maker with a distinct style). I was fascinated by the bow as I stared it up and down. It was beautiful.
While trying more instruments, I started to simultaneously try the bow with more intent. I chose excerpts based on challenging bow techniques to see how well it responded.
It was absolutely brilliant.
After a few more cellos, my curiosity got the better of me and I just had to know what kind of bow it was. I assumed it was something very expensive—a Dodd of the highest order. I was guessing an auction estimate of $15,000–$20,000. I asked my friend to look up the lot number in the catalog. He showed me the entry. It was described as an “English bow with a stick attributed to James Brown and an unknown frog. Estimated $2,000–$5,000.”
My jaw dropped. It was not by a famous maker, did not cost an arm and a leg, and was a composite (meaning that circumstances required part of the bow be remade by another maker at a later date). This was not a bow for a collector. This was a bow for a player, and I loved it.
Elated, I sincerely asked the gentleman to refrain from bidding on the bow when the auction itself opened. He was glad to oblige. “This is your bow!” he exclaimed.
The day of the auction arrived and I was ready. I had never bid on a bow or instrument before. Auctions had always fascinated me, as I was dragged to many as a child—all to furnish my childhood home with antiques—but I had never participated myself.
I created my Tarisio account and realized that the auction had already finished.
It was 4 o’clock pm and I figured that I would get in before a 5 o’clock closing. But 5 o’clock pm in London is 11 am in New York. I was 5 hours late. There it was, my opportunity to get a great bow—a great steal—gone. I was disappointed, to say the least. Out of sheer curiosity I examined the lots to see at what price points various items closed. Out of over 300 lots, 298 sold. That left me a shred of hope. I went through hundreds of lots before landing on cello bows.
My dream bow had not sold. I got on the phone right away, spoke to the auction house, and the bow was mine. Hallelujah! What were the odds? The only cello bow not to sell was the only one I desired.
Not only did I purchase the bow for the minimum accepted bid, but I received a reduction in the buyer’s premium, as I was the first in and first out. What fortune! What luck! I was on cloud nine. My Russian friend had been true to his word. Bless his heart.
To add more joy to the situation, I removed the frog after picking up the bow from the auction house only to find a stamp on the inner part of the frog that read “Paul Siefried.” Paul Martin Siefried is one of the most respected bow makers in the world, and made my first full-size bow my parents bought me when I was 10 years old. Not only was it a welcome surprise, as I had been playing a Siefried for 14 years, it also increased the value of the bow.
A few months passed and I still loved the bow. I played all my spring and summer concertos, recitals, and chamber performances with it. It had everything—projecting tone, subtlety, and color to spare. One night I was set to have dinner with my parents and the widower of my cello teacher from high school. Toby Saks was a remarkable cellist and a remarkable woman. She was hard on me, that’s for sure, but she believed in me and gave me immeasurable tutelage of the highest order. She was a huge inspiration, and I always sought her approval and appreciation. She was a huge part of my musical life, and I am so lucky to have known her and studied with her. Our close relationship made it all the more difficult for me when she passed away suddenly in the summer of 2013. She left behind an amazing husband Marty, and I was set to have a meal with him and my parents in New York.
We met at my parents’ apartment and began to catch up. I always liked him, and it was good to see him since I had had little contact with him following Toby’s passing. Eventually the conversation turned to Toby, and it was very meaningful to me. I was able to express to him how much she meant to me both personally and professionally. He affirmed that, though demanding of me, she was proud of what I had accomplished in her lifetime.
Then I felt I had to ask the question I had been meaning to ask for two years but felt ashamed to ask in the face of such tragedy. “So…” I hesitated, “what happened to the bows?”
Toby had a superb collection of fine French, American, and English bows that she never allowed me to either see or play. She would not even divulge how many bows she had or who made them. All I knew is that it was an important collection.
Marty replied flippantly, “I sold them all.”
I was in disbelief, and retorted sarcastically, “Thanks for calling me!” and followed it up with a huff. He was shocked at my reaction. “I would have jumped at an opportunity to buy one of Toby’s bows,” I said.
After a few moments, he said (with much sincerity), “I am so sorry.” There was nothing else to be said. He had to sell the bows. I knew that. Toby had children from a previous marriage and her assets had to be liquidated. I understood that, but I was emotional. I wanted a piece of Toby for the ages. She left this earth much too soon and I missed her. I wanted to feel a connection, albeit to something inanimate.
I calmed down. The air became less tense and I inquired as to where the bows went, to whom, and who made them. He went through the list, which was quite impressive, and went through who had a part in selling various parts of the collection. He concluded, “All the rest of the bows that weren’t sold I put in the Tarisio auction this past May.”
Wait . . . it couldn’t be. My mind started racing. “Did all the bows sell?” I uttered, as I tried to reign in my potential excitement.
“There was one bow that didn’t sell,” he replied, “but then someone bought it later in the day, which was great because I don’t know what I would have done with it.”
Paul Siefried made the frog. The lot numbers matched.
I bought Toby’s bow.
Cellist Julian Schwarz made his orchestral debut at the age of 11 playing the Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 1 with the Seattle Symphony with his father, Gerard Schwarz, on the podium. He has performed with symphonies and in chamber-music festivals throughout the United States and internationally. He was awarded first prize in the professional cello division of the inaugural Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition in Hong Kong, and received his bachelor of music degree from Juilliard, where he studied with Joel Krosnick. He is pursuing his master of music degree, also at Juilliard. Schwarz performs on a cello made by Gennaro Gagliano in 1743.