The cello was tall and curved. Like a human passenger, he needed his own seat on the plane. Unlike a human passenger, the cello had no passport or visa to travel abroad. And the cello was not allowed on the plane.
Cello owner Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, a member of the Danish String Quartet, stayed with his instrument while the rest of the group flew from Copenhagen to San Francisco. It would take Sjölin more than six hours and a personal escort through security before he and his cello could board a flight through Chicago to join his friends in California at midnight.
It was the day before the start of a US tour that had been canceled six times due to COVID-19 closures. And the cello problem was just the latest in a series of bureaucratic hurdles foreign artists face when trying to tour the United States.
“This tour almost felt doomed,” said violinist Frederik Øland, whose quartet plays Santa Barbara on Thursday, Seattle on Friday and the Broad Stage on Saturday – the Santa Monica venue’s return to live performances. and in person after nearly two years of pandemic shutdown.
The Danish String Quartet’s difficulties began to mount in June when the group attempted to make an appointment with the United States Embassy in Copenhagen for interviews necessary to obtain their visas. These interviews, said violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, are extremely simple but must be conducted in person. The quartet have toured extensively in the United States and have never had difficulty obtaining the necessary P1 visas granted to artists.
But things have changed during the pandemic.
“There is a huge backlog in the global visa system for traveling to the United States, and the next available appointment in Copenhagen was not until November,” Nørgaard said. The tour was supposed to start in October.
But it was still early summer and the musicians thought they had time to settle the visas. The quartet’s management team has hired an immigration lawyer to expedite the process.
“At one point we were talking about going to Poland because there were interviews available. There was also talk of going to the Dominican Republic and staying there for a week to get the visa,” Nørgaard said. “We almost gave up, but suddenly there was an opening in Frankfurt, Germany.”
The men ended up taking three different flights to Frankfurt for their dates – with just over a week until they left. The men had to leave their passports in Germany because, once the visas were approved, they had to be affixed to the inside pages.
Passports are not required to travel within the European Union, so musicians could return home to Denmark, but there was another catch: passports (with visas attached) could only be sent to an address in Germany.
The group ended up having the passports sent to a branch of their management’s lawyers in Berlin. The last two passports arrived in the afternoon of October 7. An aide flew from Berlin to Copenhagen with all four passports the next morning, as there was little confidence in a courier delivering the passports in time for a Saturday morning flight.
“Everything worked out in the end, so we were very happy about that,” said violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, adding that he hopes the pandemic will end soon – and with it the travel issues that come with it. “Because we love to travel to the United States, we come three or four times a year on tour and it feels like home.”
The Grammy-nominated quartet have already made quite an impression in Southern California. Following a 2014 concert in Santa Barbara in which they performed Beethoven’s C-Sharp Minor String Quartet, Times classical music critic Mark Swed called the musicians “wonderful” and wrote, “Their mastery of the formal arch-like structure of the quartet was complete. They could be grounded in their tone or mystical. They allowed time to stop, and they could pose as exciting and aggressive rockers. They did everything.
Three of the band’s four members met as schoolchildren at a summer camp for budding musicians and have been playing together ever since. The fourth member, cellist Sjölin, who is the only Norwegian in the mix, joined the band in 2008.
The quartet is known for its flexibility, including a mastery of Beethoven and Mozart chamber music as well as a solid understanding of folk music.
The tactile trip to being here made the performance all the sweeter, the men said.
“It was amazing to sit on stage,” Øland said of the tour’s first stop at UC Berkeley. “Finally to be back here after two years is wonderful.”
After the Berkeley show, he added, he nearly tripped over a microphone cable as he exited the stage. Nothing will be easy this time around.
Danish String Quartet
Or: The Wide Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, October 16
Tickets: $50, $65, $80
Information: thebroadstage.org, (310) 434-3200