Both Roland Feller and Roy Oakley had mentioned David Dobrinen as a great person to talk to about pernambuco, so I knew I had to get a hold of him. I had known David from previous years through the Villa Sinfonia Orchestra and luckily he was kind enough to meet with me. I drove over to his house and was welcomed by David’s bright and smiling face. David took me downstairs to his practicing area. His passion for music was evident as I noticed CDs, instruments, bows and photos filling up the room.
He knew why I was there and he started off by saying, “pernambuco is running out and there’s no better quality.” Though this statement is very true, he continued to talk in a more optimistic manner. He said that carbon fiber really is a good option and that the science behind bow making is increasing. There are even carbon fiber instruments now, he explained, which are being promoted in first chairs in orchestras in Europe. “The quickness of carbon fiber and their lightness are their greatest advantages. Their speed and reaction is the best and their lightness is their second best quality.” There’s a man by the name of Bernard Hissing in Germany at Arcus, who’s a fine player and has engineers working with him to perfect these carbon fiber bows, Dobrinen explained. “These bows are good with students, but as a professional you wouldn’t buy a bow like that to perform because it doesn’t quite come up to the artistic quality of a hand made bow from makers.” The professionals in concertos today are using French bows, not carbon fiber ones, he continued, “It’s the style that is the standard of greatness.”
However, David appeared hopeful as he said that it’s a fine line knowing that for all purposes they really are great sticks, and the spiccato can be good and quick on it too. He told me that there’s a range between $1000 and $5000 for fine carbon fiber bows. He hasn’t seen anything more than $5000 for a carbon fiber, and it is quite easy to get a pernambuco bow for $5000 that will be superior to one of carbon fiber. It comes down to the fact that pernambuco has much more coloration than a carbon fiber bow. He showed me a bow that was made of pernambuco. “The rings on the wood are juicy and rare, and they look almost like flames.” One of the characteristics that makes the physical appearance of pernambuco unique is the ‘flame’ in the wood. “If you cut up this wood it will give you a beautiful bright red color.” Though the wood plays a huge role in the pricing of the bow, it’s really what the maker does with the fine wood that sets the price, he told me
Dobrinen’s knowledge regarding bows was extensive, and he continued to discuss the issue of the availability of the wood in a positive manner. “Trees are being replanted,” he explained, and he said that he thought that the enthusiasm for reforestation was high enough that he didn’t think it would be a problem for the near future. “Bow makers, like Horst John, are contributing a lot towards addressing this issue,” said Dobrinen, “and it is this enthusiasm that will keep it alive.” Furthermore, he discussed how emerging countries like China have been starting to use alternatives to the great wood of pernambuco as well. He told me that he has a Chinese bow that is very loud and strong. Though it looks like pernambuco, the lower quality is evident when the bow doesn’t play as well.
Dobrinen then got up and started looking through his collection of bows. As he was digging through the pile he started to explain the qualities of the Tourte bows and the importance of the sound in a bow. “Tourte has an up and down swing to it but also a side wobble in the way that it vibrates,” said Dobrinen. He stopped as he finally seemed to find what he was looking for. He picked up a bow and brought it over for me to look at. He was holding a Tourte bow from 1780. He explained that although the current frog on the bow was a more modern addition, he also had the original frog. “Tourte’s winding is unique,” Dobrinen said. He picked up the original screw and said how the threads were unusual because Tourte made them up himself. He showed me a bow inside the screw and explained how Tourte took coined silver and would pound it down so that it had a thinner quality. “Pounding it is like kneeling it so that it becomes very strong,” he said. I asked him how much a bow like this one would cost. He told me that this bow was listed at $80,000, “and that’s nothing compared to what other great bows are currently sold for these days.” I was shocked. I had heard others talk about these bows that cost more than a car, but this was the first time I was actually holding one. He placed the bow in my hand and I tapped the tip of the bow on the palm of my hand. I could feel the back and forth vibration that he was telling me about.
Another characteristic that makes Tourte bows unique, he explained, was that they don’t’ have a metal piece at the frog. “Some frogs have coin silver, “ he said as he went to grab a silver Spanish coin from 1622 that was sitting at his desk. I looked in aw at this almost 400 year old coin, that he explained had originally come from Peru. I couldn’t help but feel like I was sitting in a museum as Dobrinen kept getting up and finding new treasures for me to look at.
I realized after talking with him that it wasn’t just the skill and quality of wood that made a Tourte bow great, but also the history that was embedded within it. Francois Tourte was making bows in Paris during the time of the French Revolution, Dobrinen explained. Tourte’s father, Nicolas Pierre Tourte, had been making bows for the nobility prior to the revolution, and since the revolution encompassed the idea of killing of anyone linked to the nobility, Francois’s older brother Nicolas Léonard Tourte, who was also a bow maker, had to go into hiding because for some reason he was linked closer to the father who had been working with the royalty. Somehow Francois wasn’t linked as closely to his father, and so he was safe from the mobs. This made me think back to what Roy Oakley had said about feeling the emotions of the makers that went into the bow when playing it.
Dobrinen’s knowledge continued to impress me, as he continued to explain the history of the revolution and the differences of various bows from that time. He went back to his group of pernambuco bows and let me tap them to feel the different vibrations and see the way each of them felt different in my hand. “Playing with a pernambuco bow gives you the same feeling as when you’re playing in Carnegie Hall and feel how all the music in the room is transcending into the air. It has so much color and power that it gives off this feeling of a kaleidoscopic sound.”