Authors: Sara Hoskinson Frommer
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This one's for Marcia.
Special thanks to
Jeff Kirby, Indiana Geological Services
Gary Lane, Professor Emeritus of Paleontology,
Abby Samulak, 911 dispatcher
and to my agents, Stuart Krichevsky and Shana Cohen,
and my editor, Ben Sevier
“I can't play the concert,” Sylvia Purcell said. “I have to sit in a tree.”
Joan Spencer's jaw dropped. “What are you talking about?” Sylvia was one of her best first violins. And she'd had the nerve to smile when she dropped her bomb.
Joan didn't have time to throttle her. The Oliver Civic Symphony rehearsal was already starting. Nicholas Zeller, their young concertmaster, was on the podium, signaling to the oboe for an A. “We'll talk at the break,” she told Sylvia.
Joan had scrounged up enough violinists by early April to eke out a spring children's concert. As long as no one came down sick, she had figured they'd probably make it, but it was too late in the season to line them all up against the wall and give them flu shots. Managing a community orchestra in a town as little as Oliver, Indiana, was never easy, and Joan could pay players only in a dire emergency. Mostly she made do with the dedicated volunteers of the Oliver Civic Symphony and an occasional Oliver College student, though students could be iffy when exams threatened. In a real pinch, a trombone or cello might cover the notes of a missing second bassoon, but no one could cover for a first violin. If the firsts sounded thin, so would the whole orchestra.
Attendance tonight was decentânot perfect, but good enough not to set off Alex Campbell, their pudgy, volatile conductor. When Alex let loose, she could shrivel amateur musicians.
Having dug music folders out of the box for three people who had stuck theirs in the wrong place instead of taking them home to practice or absorb by osmosis, Joan finally sat down, unzipped her case, and pulled out her viola. Just resting her feet felt good. She'd barely had time to walk home from her day job, change clothes, deal with supper, and haul the music to rehearsal. She was stretching the shoulder rest across the back of her viola when the oboe sounded the official A.
“You all right?” John Hocking asked her. Nicholas frowned at him, and a cellist went, “Shhh!”
Joan shrugged and mouthed “fine” while they waited for the woodwinds and brasses to tune before the strings got their chance. She'd enjoyed sitting at the back of the viola section with John, a cheerful engineer, since she first arrived in Oliver a few years ago.
An hour later, when Alex put down her baton and announced the break, Joan laid her bow on the stand and her viola in its case. She had a horror of sitting on it.
Sylvia parked her own instrument on her seat and met Joan in front of the conductor's podium. She wore several earrings in each ear and one in her right nostril, and her unkempt hair overpowered her slight frame. Her calloused, bare feet looked chilly in Birkenstock sandals under a long cotton skirt on this March evening. She came across as flighty, but she was a solid player Joan usually could count on. Much too good to lose to a stunt like tree sitting.
“So what's this all about?” Joan gentled her tone.
“I told you,” Sylvia said. “I can't play the concert.” Her sparkling eyes destroyed any sympathy Joan might have felt about her problem.
The trombones, working over a hard spot during the break, drowned out Sylvia's next words. Joan led her beyond the violin section to the table where women of the orchestra guild had set out coffee, juice, and homemade cookies. The trombones were still loud, but she and Sylvia would be able to hear each other.
Sylvia tucked a handful of chocolate chip cookies into her skirt pocket and bit into another one. “We're sitting in a tree in Yocum's Woods, out by the edge of town, where they want to put up low-income housing. It's my turn.”
“What's wrong with low-income housing?”
“Nothing. But not there!” Her eyebrows peaked, and her voice rose. “That land doesn't need high-density construction. It's fragile karst topographyâthat means it's full of sinkholes and underground streams. Do you have any idea of the trees they'd destroy? And the birds and other wildlife they'd drive away? Already last week I saw a black-and-white warbler and a spectacular red summer tanager. Those birds need wooded habitat. We've gone to all the meetings and tried to fight in every way we know, but nobody will listen. Now we're protesting with our bodies, like Julia Butterfly.”
“Julia Butterfly Hill spent two whole years in a tree out in California, in a protest against clear-cutting. An inspiration to us all. I'm going to read her book while I'm in the tree.”
Joan tried to imagine two years in a tree. “So you're in it for the long haul.” And I've lost a good first violin.
“That's right. We are!”
“Couldn't someone else take the next couple of weeks? Just to get us through this concert?”
“No. I told you, it's my turn. This is a lot more important than a concert.”
“Why did you even come tonight?” She could have told me over the phone, Joan thought.
“I need to speak to the players at the end of the break,” Sylvia said through a mouthful of chocolate. “Enlist their support.”
“You want more? We won't have enough to play the concert. It's bad enough to lose one first. If you talk any more violins into itâ¦”
“Don't worry. One person is enough in the tree. But I'll need help from people down on the ground.”
“Keep it under two minutesâwe're pushed for time. We're playing through Britten's
Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
with the narrator for the first time tonight.”
Sylvia wrinkled her nose.
“What's the matter?” Joan hadn't met the man. Had they picked someone who couldn't read music well enough to know when to come in? “His business supports the orchestra financially, and I'm told he's done amateur dramatics.”
“I know. I work with him. Thinks he's God's gift to women. You'll see. But it's all right.” The sparkle returned to Sylvia's eyes. “I won't be here after tonight. I won't even be at work.”
“Right,” Joan said. You'll be freezing your whatsis off up in a tree. I hope you swap that cotton skirt for something warmer. And how will you climb a tree in sandals? “You'll have to tell Nicholas yourself. He may want to move you to the back of the firsts for the rest of this rehearsal.”
Sylvia looked alarmed. “I haven't even told Birdie yet.” Birdie Eads, another young working woman in the first violin section, often rode to rehearsals with Sylvia, and during the breaks they talked more with each other than with anyone else. “Only one I told was my boss. She didn't take it too well, but I've saved up enough vacation that she can't say no.”
“Better tell Birdie now. Then Nicholas.” Nicholas Zeller, their young and ambitious concertmaster, chewed out the strings if they bowed up when he'd chosen a down-bow or talked while he was tuning the orchestra. Not to mention latecomers like Sylvia. As second chair first violin, Sylvia sat next to the concertmaster, who was, of course, first chair and always knew when she was late. Sylvia could tell him herself. Joan didn't want it dumped on her. She had enough trouble dealing with the conductor.
Time to drag the players back to work.
At the podium she found a good-looking man of about forty charming the conductor, pudgy, graying Alex Campbell. Alex was tilting her head and smiling up at him in a way Joan had never seen her smile at anyone.
Alex tore her eyes away from the hunk long enough for introductions. “Joan, this is our narrator, Jim Chandler. Jim, this is Joan Spencer, our manager.”
“Alex has been telling me about you.” He turned warm brown eyes on her. “She says you've been wonderful for the orchestra.”
“Thanks, Alex.” Joan smiled. If he could have such an effect on their conductor, of all people, maybe he really was God's gift to women.
Alex waved off her thanks. “Time to get started.”
Joan climbed up on the podium and tapped Alex's baton. “Break's over, everyone. A couple of announcements. First, I want to introduce Jim Chandler, who will be narrating the Britten. Jim's with Fulford Electronics. They've supported the orchestra for years.”
The players applauded. Apparently considering that an invitation, Chandler stepped forward. “I'm glad to be here. This is as close as I'll ever come to playing with an orchestra. As for supporting you, you're our community orchestra. After all, three Fulford employees are playersâSylvia Purcell, Birdie Eads, and John Hocking.” He gestured to them to stand up, but they only waved their bows. “And I'm telling all the Scouts in my Boy Scout troop they have to come to the concert.” Out of his line of vision, Birdie Eads rolled her eyes.
“Thanks, Jim,” Joan said, and turned to the orchestra. “And now Sylvia wants to ask for your help.”
Sylvia stood where she was and kept it short, not preaching, but stressing the urgency of her cause. She didn't mention not playing the concert but promised to stick around after rehearsal to answer questions.
Looking like thunder, Nicholas stepped up on the podium then, nodded for the oboe's A, and turned to the winds. Sylvia must have told him what she planned to do.
Joan made it back to her seat in plenty of time to check her tuning.
Alex began with the Britten. Joan was relieved when Jim Chandler's voice poured out like melted chocolate. The words themselves were boring, though, and she wondered how well they would hold the attention of the kids in the audience. Nothing like the gripping story of
Peter and the Wolf,
though she was glad the poor kids were getting something different this year. But she couldn't help wishing for the rhymes Ogden Nash wrote for
Carnival of the Animals.
Oh, well, she thought. Another concert. At least Jim is coming in more or less on time with the music.