By Joe Sugarman
In November of 2010, BSO cellist Kristin Ostling was scheduled to perform at a symposium at Leeds University in England. Instead, she was held in an interrogation room at Heathrow Airport for eight hours before being deported back to the United States. The story made headlines around the world, but Ostling’s version of the incident has never been published. We thought we’d finally give her the chance to tell it in her own words:
“I was with the [Carpe Diem] string quartet and we were supposed to perform at a symposium at Leeds University, so it wasn’t technically a performance. It was a conference. The quartet had asked Leeds repeatedly before we went, ‘Do we need visas for this?’ And Leeds said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ [British immigration law demands that individuals acquire a visa to “work” in the UK. The quartet was not being paid.]
I had flown a day earlier than the rest of the group to see a friend, so I arrived there by myself and the first thing I got asked by the immigration official was: ‘Can I see your plane ticket?’ So I handed her my itinerary, and she said, ‘How come there’s two tickets? Where’s the other passenger? As soon as she said that I thought this is going to be a long day because this agent didn’t know anything about buying an extra seat for instruments, so I had to explain that to her.
OK, so, here’s my favorite part: The agent also claimed that she didn’t know what a string quartet was! I wasn’t quite sure if she was faking it . . . to see what kind of response I would have. I thought maybe it was some sort of interrogation tactic … And then somehow it came out that I was a member of the BSO and that I was on leave playing with the quartet, and she suddenly perked right up and said, ‘Well, the Baltimore Symphony, that’s a great orchestra! What are you doing here?’
I told her, ‘I’m here to play a concert,’ which I thought was fine because everything had been cleared with the university, but as soon as I said that, she asked, ‘Well, do you have a visa for it?’ I told her we didn’t need them, but that led to her taking me upstairs to what my friends coined the ‘Group W Bench’— a reference from Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’— which was a holding area for people being detained.
They took my luggage and searched it, and took me upstairs, and put my luggage and cello in a separate room and put a tag on it that I still have on my cello case—all it says is A13582.
I mostly sat there all day and they took me in for periodic questioning. They were trying to get in touch with my colleagues in the U.S., but it was 3 a.m., and they were all asleep, so they couldn’t get in touch with anybody.
They asked me a lot about the group and the group’s business and things I didn’t know the answer to. Everything I said or didn’t say was deemed suspicious because of that. Also, the group’s previous cellist was listed on the program for the concert, which made them extra suspicious.
They eventually got a hold of my colleagues and they said, ‘Don’t bother flying over here because you’ll run into the same thing.’ But they decided to come anyway! When they got to customs, they changed their wording a bit. Instead of saying that they were playing a concert, they said they were attending a symposium.
After eight hours, [the immigration service] bought a ticket for myself and my cello at the very last second for the very last flight back to the U.S. In the meantime, the rest of the quartet was flying over to London. When they arrived, they ended up not even performing! They just visited pubs all week.
Oh, so on the flight home, the stewardess kept bringing wine back to me, and as I was getting off the plane, the head steward came over and said, ‘I heard all about your story. I’m sorry. I know all about traveling with a cello, because my son is a cellist.’ It turns out his son was attending the same school I went to—Curtis Institute and studying with Carter Brey, the principal cellist with the New York Philharmonic. I said, ‘OK, this day is getting better.’
But, you know, I haven’t done any symposiums since then.”