I was at the airport awaiting a pickup going to the Days Inn across from St. Michael’s College. It’s unusual for me to accept a local fare arriving by plane. Meeting an incoming passenger takes a lot of time — there are late planes, lost luggage, you name it. So, normally, I’ll only book the lucrative out-of-town fares. Still, I’m no different from a grizzly bear: I may prefer a nice fat salmon, but when times are lean, I’m prepared to sustain myself on nuts and berries.
My customer — Gretchen, a comely Asian girl with shiny black hair tied in a loose braid — arrived right on schedule and with no checked luggage. Yippee. Her carry-ons were a backpack and an instrument case of some kind. As we pulled out of the airport, her enthusiasm was overflowing.
“Oh, it’s so beautiful up here! So many trees, and I love the colors.”
“Yup, that’s Vermont. It’s actually the tail end of the foliage season. I hate to say, but you should’ve been here a few weeks ago. Where’d ya come up from?”
“I live in New York City. I study at the Manhattan School of Music.”
Swinging right onto Airport Parkway, I said, “Now, you sound like you grew up overseas, am I right?”
“Yes, I’m from Taiwan.”
“Aha — the island of Formosa,” I said, for no other reason than to show off my vast geographical knowledge. “So, what brings you to Burlington?”
“I’m auditioning tomorrow for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. I think it’s at, like, the Elley-Long Music Center.”
“Well, how awesome is that? You must be an amazing musician to get this opportunity. What’s your instrument?”
“I play viola.”
“That is quite cool. That’s, like, kind of a fat violin, right?”
Gretchen laughed and said, “That’s exactly right: It’s a fat violin. Actually, you know, the viola is closely related to the cello. Our strings have the same tuning, but the cello is an octave lower. The violins, on the other hand, are tuned like the bass.”
“Thanks for the inside skinny on the string section. That’s good to know.”
We motored toward the Lime Kiln Bridge, passing the Vermont National Guard’s new helicopter hangar. “Hey, can I ask you something?” I asked, picking up the conversation. “Is Gretchen an Americanized version of your name? I mean, do you have, like, a Chinese name from back home?”
“Nope, my given name is Gretchen. English-style names are common in Taiwan.”
“This reminds me of Tang-Twee, a regular customer I drove for years. Her folks immigrated here as Vietnamese boat people, I guess in the ’70s. Tang-Twee was born here — you know, as American as apple pie — but she kept her Vietnamese name. She always had to tell people how to pronounce it. She’d say, ‘Just think of the breakfast drink.’” I paused for a moment, smiling at the memory. “Man, I miss her. She was just a great person.”
“What happened to her?”
“If I remember correctly, she got engaged to a funeral director and moved to Fairfax … or it might have been Fairfield. I always mix up those two towns.”
Waiting for the light at Route 15, I asked, “Hey, would you want to visit Elley-Long before we go to the hotel? It’s just up the road in what they call Fort Ethan Allen, and I won’t charge you any extra.”
“Oh, that would be great,” Gretchen replied. “I can scope out the audition space, and maybe I’ll be less nervous tomorrow.”
The Elley-Long Music Center is located in a massive, arched-brick building, formerly the fort’s stable and now beautifully renovated. Fort Ethan Allen was a U.S. military base from the late 1800s until it was decommissioned in the early 1960s. Apparently, it housed cavalry divisions for many of those years — hence the stable. I pondered that as we pulled onto Ethan Allen Drive: men going to war on horseback. Isn’t it wonderful how much more advanced and civilized humankind has become?
I parked in front, and the two of us walked in through the huge front doors. Toward the rear of the building, in the large performance space, a rehearsal was just breaking up. A few musicians lingered on the stage, chatting among themselves while they packed up their instruments.
“Gretchen — omigod, is that you?”
Gretchen’s head turned, and she jumped onto the stage and embraced one of the musicians, a woman about her age. The two of them had a short, animated conversation. When Gretchen stepped back down, she was beaming. “That was, like, so crazy. That was a girl who was with me my first two years at the Manhattan School. And she’s with the VSO now. I had no idea.”
“Maybe it’ll give you a leg up at the audition,” I suggested.
“If only,” Gretchen said, chuckling. “No, auditions these days are completely blind. The selection committee doesn’t even physically see the auditioning musicians, or even get their actual names. You play behind a wall or a curtain of some kind.”
“Is this to curb prejudice of whatever stripe?”
“Exactly. In fact, I’ve heard that some orchestras go so far as to lay thick carpet in the audition space so the committee can’t detect high heels. Believe it or not, there are still major symphonic orchestras without a female member. I think the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the best in the world, didn’t hire its first woman until recently, and still has only a handful.”
I shook my head. “That is freaking scandalous,” I said. “I mean, in this day and age. Jeez.”
We drove back up the road to the Days Inn. As Gretchen paid the fare, I said, “Well, maybe skip the high heels tomorrow. You know, just in case.”
“Hell, no!” Gretchen said, with an audacious laugh. Clearly, nobody was going to push this woman around. “I brought my highest heels, and, carpet or no carpet, that’s what I’ll be wearing.”