TRAVELING WITH THE NEW YORK HARP ENSEMBLE
By Carl Swanson
(This article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Harp Society,
Summer 2002 issue, Vol. 18 No. 3.)

     All professional harpists seem to have war stories about gigs that went wrong, problems that occurred, unforeseen mishaps that turned a perfectly ordinary job into a calamity. But nothing I have ever heard compares to the situations that the New York Harp Ensemble faced many times during its 27 year history.

      Founded in 1970 by Aristid Von Wurtzler, the ensemble—consisting of 4 harpists—gave thousands of concerts in the United States and in 53 countries all over the world. Given the staggering number of concerts the Ensemble played, it’s small wonder that more didn’t go wrong. In fact, more often than not, there were no problems. But when they did occur, they were the stuff of nightmares.

     There were many harpists that played with the Ensemble over the years, but Barbara Von Wurtzler was the only one who was in it through its entire history. Other former members each have their stories, but when the idea for this article materialized, they all told me to talk to Barbara. “She knows all the stories” they all said. Barbara therefore is the sole source of information for this article.

     The path that connects 4 harpists rehearsing in a Manhattan living room to a concert hall somewhere in South America or Asia is long and strewn with obstacles: trucking companies, baggage handlers, Airplane Companies, border guards, customs officials, as well as language barriers, unstable governments, crooked booking agents, and unpredictable weather all conspire against the best laid plans.
     

IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS

     “In the beginning,” Barbara told me, ”we were so ignorant. We didn’t know anything about traveling with so many harps, and we made a lot of mistakes. One of the first concerts outside of the United States was in Guatemala, and the fee was something like five thousand dollars, which we thought was great. We flew the harps by cargo plane, and then arrived a few days later for the concert. From there we flew to Germany via Florida, again sending the harps ahead by cargo plane. The cargo bill? Five thousand dollars! And in addition, the harps got lost and we almost missed the German concert.” Aristid figured out very quickly that the harps had to travel with the ensemble as excess baggage, and for most of the tours he got an airline company to sponsor some or all of the trip in order to do this and to save on transport costs.      

U-HAUL

     When the Ensemble played in the United States, they usually traveled by station wagon, with the 4 harps in a U-Haul trailer. One of the first times they traveled like that, they were cruising along on a highway when the hitch for the U-Haul came off. The safety chain held, but the trailer—with 4 harps in it— was wandering wildly back and forth across the highway. Eva Jaslar was driving, and every time she tried to slow down by lightly touching the brakes, the trailer would slam into the back of the station wagon. When they finally came to a stop on the shoulder, several cars stopped to see if they were all right. They were, and miraculously, the harps were all right too.

     They were not so lucky another time, again driving with the instruments in a U-Haul, when a drunk driver ran a red light and smashed into the side of the trailer. It was hit so hard that they had to leave it there. They put two harps in the car and drove to the concert hall, then came back for the other two.

     When all four harps were on the stage, Barbara took the covers off. “I took the cover off my harp first,” Barbara said,”and there was some cosmetic damage. A little here, a little there. Then I took the cover off Eva’s harp, and it was like it was snowing. All the prongs and hardware from the front plate had been broken off and it all clattered down onto the floor.” The harp was unusable, of course. But in the two or three hours left before the concert, they were able to find another instrument to rent.      

CROSSING BORDERS

     Any time the Ensemble had to cross international borders, there was the potential for trouble. The first time they played in Spain, customs officials told them that they would have to pay the full value of the instruments as a deposit, or they couldn’t come in. The same thing happened the first time they went to Canada, and the concert was canceled because of it. In both cases, the customs officials assumed they were bringing the harps in to sell. In Spain, their manager was good friends with the manager of a bank, and the bank put the deposit down so they could do the concerts.

     Over time, the Ensemble learned what worked for each country. “When we traveled in Italy,” Barbara said,”all we had to do was flutter our blue eyes and shake our blond hair and talk sweetly to whomever, and it was done. In Turkey it was different. Everything worked on bribes.” But in Norway there was a problem. “It was no use fluttering our blue eyes at them,” said Barbara laughing,” because everyone there has blue eyes and blond hair. And they weren’t interested in bribes.” Argument prevailed, and the harps were allowed in.

      A rather peculiar problem came up on another European tour. Because they would be driving from concert to concert, the manager supplied them with a van. But it was too small for all four harps, and the only way to pack the instruments was to put three lengthwise, and the fourth crosswise, with its base sticking out the side door of the van. This left the side door slightly open and secured with a bungee cord. They drove that way through nine countries in Europe.

     The last country on the tour was Switzerland, and the border guard, seeing the open door, told them they couldn’t drive that way in Switzerland. “What do you mean, sir?” Barbara asked innocently. “We have just driven this way through nine countries in Europe.” His response? ”Nine countries in Europe; yes. Switzerland; NO!” But once again the group prevailed, arguing that they were only going a few kilometers into the country.

     Airlines officials were no easier. “ There was always, always a battle to get the harp trunks into the hold of the plane,” Barbara said,” because if you simply went by the measurements, they were too large for the compartment. But we knew they would go in, with maybe one inch to spare. But they would go. And we had to argue and haggle over it every single time. In the end, either we would give a bribe, or Aristid’s formidable ability to persuade would convince them.”      

LOST HARPS

     Even when they were flying with the harps in the baggage compartment, there was no sure guarantee that the harps would arrive with them. One time, they were playing concerts in Texas and the southwest with only three days after the last concert to drive back to New York to catch a plane to Copenhagen. They drove for 44 hours straight, and arrived in New York with just enough time to do laundry, repack, and get to the airport. When they finally settled into their seats on the plane and had seen the harps being loaded into the baggage compartment, they thought they could at last relax.

     But arriving at Copenhagen the next morning and waiting an interminable time for the harps to be brought out, they went to the baggage room. “There were no harps on that flight sir,” said the manager. “Excuse me, sir,”said Aristid,”Perhaps you don’t know what harps look like. We saw them go on last night.” So the manager took Aristid into the hold of the plane. No harps! A telex to New York informed them that the pilot, worried about the weather, had decided the plane was too heavy and ordered the baggage handlers to unload some of the cargo, so the four harps were taken off the flight. All the arrangements—the concert, television appearances, etc. — had to be moved from Friday to Sunday.

     Another time, the ensemble had to play several concerts on two harps, because two were lost. The group had come from Ankara to India via Teheran, and when they changed planes, two of the harps were around the corner at the terminal, and so didn’t get loaded. To make matters worse, half the music was missing too, because it was in those two trunks. So they did the concerts on two harps, with the ones who had music playing. For three days they went to the airport every day to find the two lost harps, and finally Aristid forced his way into the hold of the plane which had just come from Paris and said ”Those two things there are harps! Take them off!,” because the harps were loaded. They had flown to Manila, Tehran, Bombay, Paris, wherever. They were just flying all over the world.      

WHAT YOU SEE IS (NOT NECESSARILY) WHAT YOU GET!

      Once, when the Ensemble played at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, the trunks were put in a storage area below the stage. The next day at the airport the ensemble members watched as 4 trunks were loaded into the hold of the plane and saw them being unloaded at the next stop. “ Thank heavens” they thought. At the concert hall they opened the trunks. Two contained harps, and two were empty. The stage hands in Budapest had simply grabbed 4 trunks at random from the 6 or 8 in the storage area and loaded them onto the waiting truck.      

REVOLUTION

      Aristid learned early on that to travel under the auspices of a government, either the U.S. or the host country where they were playing, not only helped save on expenses but helped enormously in dealing with officials and political situations. But even that did not guarantee that all would go smoothly. In addition, if a problem did occur, it almost invariably created a domino effect.

     There was a tour of Greece that was sponsored by the American Embassy. After a concert in Thessaloniki, they were to fly to Istanbul via Athens. “There was the most beautiful blue sky that day.”Barbara said,”when suddenly we heard an announcement that, because of the weather, planes were not flying to Athens. We looked at each other, then back to the blue sky and thought, ‘what the hell is going on?’ ” Soon after, the American ambassador, in sneakers and unshaved, showed up to tell them that there was a student uprising in Athens. “I have to get you out of this %#@* country,” he shouted, ”Maybe you will have to go by train.” However, another plane showed up that was going to Athens, and they got on that one. But the problems were not over yet. Arriving in Athens, they were told to go to their hotel, because there were no flights out of Athens. They didn’t have a hotel because they were in transit. Aristid tried to put the harps in the baggage area, but the manager said “No, there are bombs landing everywhere.” But he finally prevailed, as usual.
 
    With the harps now secure, they jumped on a bus loaded with Canadian tourists. “The bus was so crowded we had to stand with one foot on the floor and the other in the air,” said Barbara. “And forget the luggage.” They were taken to a hotel 20 miles outside of Athens, and since it was October and the tourist season was over, the hotel was officially closed. So there was no running water, no food, nothing. It was now 5 o’clock in the morning. They all waited in the lobby until 9 o’clock in the evening when food was finally served. All the passports had been collected, but Aristid, pacing and fuming most of the day, had snuck over to the desk and taken back the five passports of the harp Ensemble. The next morning the hotel manager said that everything was now calm in Athens and they could leave, but that everyone had to pay forty dollars per person for the night. No one wanted to pay of course, but the manager said” no money, no passports!” Aristid called a cab, and as they pulled away, he flashed the passports at the manager.      

THE DOMINO EFFECT, AGAIN!

      The Ensemble toured the Caribbean, using St. Thomas as a base and doing run-outs to other islands with small airplanes and little luggage. Arriving at the airport to fly to Martinique, they presented their tickets— which had been bought six months earlier— only to be told that that carrier had gone out of business. “But we have a concert tomorrow,” Barbara said. It didn’t matter. Nobody was interested. Then Aristid went to work. He convinced another airline to accept the tickets, but they said,”We can take you, but not the harps.” “Without the harps we don’t go.” Aristid worked on them some more. Finally they said,”OK, we found room for three harps.” “No, we have four harps, and they all have to go.” Finally they took all of them. But this delay was only the beginning.

     The management for this tour had agreed to meet them at the airport at seven PM, but they arrived at midnight. Not only was no one there to meet them, but the airport was closed, and it was pouring rain. Aristid had agreed to cheaper accommodations than the previous trip, and this proved to be a bad decision. An airport worker drove them to the hotel, which was in the middle of nowhere. By this time it was one AM, and the kitchens were closed. The mosquitoes were terrible, but if they closed the windows, they suffocated.
 
    The next morning the group, having had nothing to eat for almost 24 hours, approached breakfast with a ravenous appetite. But the meal was some sort of tripe, so nobody ate. The hotel, on the side of a hill, had a beautiful view of the ocean, so the 4 women decided to take a swim. They put on their bathingsuits and walked down the hill. But they ended up in a slum, and when they got to the water, there was no beach. It was where everyone dumped their garbage. There were goats and mangy dogs wandering around, and it smelled so bad they left right away.
 
     Returning to the hotel, which was run by nuns, they were refused entry, because the nuns, seeing them in shorts and halter tops, thought they were hookers trying to do business with the clientele. Finally, Aristid convinced the management to put them in a better hotel. The new hotel-five miles from the first one- had its own private beach.

     The concert that evening was in a hall that was not air-conditioned. There were fans for the audience, but not for the ensemble, and it was suffocatingly hot. “Aristid had beads of sweat on his bald head that were falling on his harp like raindrops, and there were flies that kept landing on our strings,” said Barbara. “There was also some kind of big bug that would land on the harp and beat its wings, making a loud buzzing sound.”
 
    The second the concert was over, the women went off stage and took off what were by now soaking wet dresses. But the audience wanted an encore, so they had to put the wet dresses back on and play several encores.
Another time the Ensemble traveled from Shanghai to Manila via Hong Kong, requiring a change of planes. In Hong Kong they were informed that there was no space in the hold for the harps, but the company guaranteed that they would arrive the next day. “Famous last words!” Barbara said, ”How many times had we heard that!” So they left Hong Kong after having seen the harps lined up in the cargo area like four soldiers.
 
    Sure enough, the next day the harps arrived in Manila, and everybody thought”thank God.” The tour was going well, and feeling no particular need to practice or rehearse, they spent the day shopping, swimming, etc., and then went to the concert hall at 7 o’clock to get ready for the concert.
 
    “I opened my trunk and couldn’t believe what I saw,” said Barbara. “My trunk had not closed properly after the previous concert, and so the top of the trunk had a wide opening. It had rained in Hong Kong, and they had apparently left the harps outside on the dock, allowing water to pour into the trunk. The cover had deflected the water from the harp, so it was not too wet. But all my concert clothes were in the trunk, and they were soaked. I had a beautiful green velvet blouse in there, right next to my white gown. So the white gown was streaked with green, and the green blouse was absolutely soggy. Luckily I had another dress in there that had not been stained, so I played the concert in soaking wet clothes.”      

AMERICA COMES TO THE RESCUE

Every working harpist knows better than to turn down work if they can possibly avoid it, and the New York Harp Ensemble was no different. One October their manager called Aristid from Vancouver, Canada. “It was the middle of the week, Wednesday or Thursday, ”Barbara said, ”and he asked Aristid if we could do 30 concerts in the United States and Canada.
” Starting when?” Ari asked.
“Tomorrow,” the manager said.
“Sure,” he said.
The manager sounded a little surprised. “You have to start tomorrow,” he repeated.
“ Fine,” Aristid said.
“You have to have visas,” he said.
“Fine.” Ari answered fine to everything he said.
“The first concert is in Winnipeg on Saturday,” he said.
“Good. Wonderful.”
“We had no visas. No snow tires. Nothing. One harpist was not available, so we got somebody else.” On Friday evening the manager called Aristid and said” Where are they?”
“ They’re in Chicago,” he said. In fact, they were still in New York. The group, four harpists and a U-Haul full of harps, drove straight through to Winnipeg and made the concert, and then gradually made their way across Canada, all the way to Kitimat, on the border with Alaska. The drive wasn’t so bad, except that there were 26 bridges out, and they had to detour around each one. Once there, they had to drive back, and it was snowing very hard. “In western Canada, nobody drives when it snows if they can possibly help it,” Barbara said. “Snowplows, yes. Cars, no.” They had to drive through Jasper Park, which was all closed up because of the snow. And in the middle of the park, they ran out of gas. A good Samaritan came by and gave them enough gas to get to Alberta. “We didn’t know that in Canada you are allowed to carry a gas can in the car,” Barbara said. “We tried to pay him, but he wouldn’t take anything. All he said was, ‘Sometime you do the same thing for somebody else.”
They made it to the next concert, and their manager was there, and he said,
” You have to drive back through Jasper Park to St. George.” “No way,” they said. So he flew them up there. But they didn’t have trunks, so the airline suspended the harps in netting in the cargo area, and they flew in the cockpit with the pilot.
The reason the Ensemble got the tour, and on such short notice, was that a Russian group was to have done it, and they had canceled at the last moment, with no explanation.

      The reason the itinerary was so crazy was because the Russians were to have flown everywhere, but the ensemble had to do it by car. They drove perhaps 10,000 miles in six weeks, and one of the newspapers where they performed had a headline that read, “RUSSIANS CANCEL. AMERICA COMES TO THE RESCUE.”

NUNS TO THE RESCUE

    One of the most pleasant times that Barbara remembered occurred when the group was booked to perform onboard the Leanardo Da Vinci. “We had to play two half hour programs a day and the rest of the time was ours,” she recalled. But when they got to Genoa, they learned that the government had collapsed, and the new government had canceled their concerts. “We needed this money to get back to the States, and finally they said that they would reschedule the concerts, but in two or three weeks, and the only place we could afford to stay was in a convent. Two weeks in a convent! We got lots of practicing done.”      

BREAKDOWN

     The Ensemble traveled in different ways in different countries. In Italy and Spain, for example, they always had a bus with a driver. But one time in Germany, they were given a truck with a standard shift, and no driver. “I didn’t drive at all at that time,” said Barbara,”so I was out. Aristid was an excellent driver, but he didn’t know how to drive a standard. So he was out. The only one who knew how was Eva, and she had done it 15 years earlier in Poland when she got her driver’s license.”

     “So Eva drove, and I navigated, Barbara continued. But I don’t speak German, and every name in Germany is one mile long. By the time you read the name on the map, it’s the next day.”
Three of them were in the cab of the truck, and Aristid(the only one who spoke German) was in back with the harps, mainly because he was too nervous to watch what was going on. But it was so cold that he finally moved into the cab.

     They were headed for Constance, when Barbara, the navigator, suddenly realized that they had to take a ferry. This required a u-turn, so Eva found a side street to turn the truck around. All of a sudden she was shouting “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” The shift stick had come out and she was holding it up in the air. The truck was now stuck crosswise in the street and of course no longer worked. Some people came to help, and wanted to push the truck into a car park, but it was loaded with 4 harps in trunks, plus all their luggage. So all they could do was move it to the side of the street. The next day they got a new truck.      

CONCLUSION

     What astonishes me about each of these stories is that the ensemble members were able, in virtually every instance, to salvage the situation and go on with the tour. They rarely missed a performance. And in most instances, it was Aristid that saved the day, usually against almost impossible odds, when anyone else would have thrown in the towel.

     With the death of Aristid Von Wurtzler in 1997, the New York Harp Ensemble has gone into hiatus. He was the driving force that created the Ensemble and opened so many doors for it. Aristid made over 200 arrangements for the Ensemble; everything from classical solos to concertos to pop. He wrote thousands of letters and contacted countless embassies, booking agents, airline companies, news organizations, recording companies, etc., all for the goal of promoting the New York Harp Ensemble.
     
     In addition to performing thousands of concerts in 53 different countries, they also played at the White House during four different administrations. They played for, and met, Pope John Paul II. Barbara told me that the Pope was astonished when two of the ensemble members greeted him in Polish. “I thought you were American,” he said. “We are,” they answered in Polish. “Polish/American.”