Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Monster post ahead! Jump to the pictures if you don't want to read the frustrating story of trying to play a concert legally in the U.S. of A.

I promised a rant a while back, so I'll do my best to tell this story as infuriatingly as I can. It has to do with getting a visa to go and play with Concerto Palatino in Seattle two weeks ago. Now, Canada has a reciprocal exchange with the USA which lets citizens of one country work in the other. This means that the Americans can come to Canada and work without any hassle or cost, while for the Canadians to go work in the USA, it costs only 2-4 months of paperwork and up to $2000 in fees. Reciprocal, you say? To which the Americans respond: We are bigger than you. At least, that's what they said when they levied five billion dollars in tarifs on softwood lumber exports from British Columbia, despite the "North American Free Trade Agreement." Parliament celebrated a huge victory when they finally convinced the US that it was unfair and guess how much they got back? 1 billion. The other four is a write-off and there isn't a lot we can do.

I don't think Canada should start asking for visas to come and play concerts. In broadcasting, we have Canadian-content laws to make sure that around 1/3 of what we call Canadian radio and tv actually comes from Canadian artists, but we like the idea of having an international cultural scene. We're proud of what we do here, but not so hoity-toity to think that Canadians should only be exposed to what's home-grown. Besides, if an arts organization wants to present someone in the world who is doing something really interesting, they can, while in the US (and the UK for that matter) the hassle and cost of getting someone in from abroad is so great that a lot of them won't bother. A most excellent violinist in Montreal wanted to audition for the extras list of a Boston Orchestra - it's one of the closest cities - only to be told not to bother, they wouldn't pay the $400 every time they wanted her to come down for a concert. Meanwhile, the top sackbut spots in Canada are taken up by Americans, who are often closer to Toronto or Vancouver than their Canadian counterparts.

Who exactly is this law serving? American presenters suffer, the audiences too, and while a mediocre musician might as well, the best ones lose the opportunity to make contacts outside of their country by inviting people to come and play concerts, not to mention the opportunity to grow from other people's experience in this very small field of early music.

Anyway, so I had to apply for a visa. It was complicated because after having paid my union dues for four years, I decided that $200 per concert was a bit steep - I'd rather leave the union and pay the external per concert fee of $50. The union does apply for visas on musicians' behalf (for the low low price of $400), but it IS possible to get one without. Being between the UK, Switzerland and Montreal, I couldn't set up an interview for "sometime in the next 60 days" anywhere, so I had to apply for an 0-1 visa, which avoids that but is only for highly specialized people with an international career. Actually, Maxine in Seattle had to. As one of the Palitini had just gotten one with no problem, it seemed like a good idea.

Maxine put in the application, which included CVs, reviews, concert programmes, contracts, letters of recommendation etc. - it was all quite a narcissistic procedure, collecting the stuff. She sent it off and we waited. And waited. And....waited....

It was 10 days late and only a week before I was to fly, when we found out they'd sent the letter to the wrong address - it ended up at Maxine's neighbour's house in Seattle. But she didn't know this and couldn't ask until she paid the $1500 "premium processing" fee which allowed her to talk to a real person. Yep, $1500 to be told that, yes it had been sent, no not that address, but one number off. So she went and got the letter from next door.

It said this (you can click on it to make it bigger):

Incidentally, not even Bruce could recall who HAD received the last Nobel Prize in Sackbuttery - I'll have to try harder next year. As to the fact that I was coming to play as a member of one of the most famous sackbut and cornetto bands in the world, with a discography of over 25 CDs and a concert history all over Europe, the Americas, Japan:

And who are these national or international experts, then?

Now things were serious. Finding an American replacement at the last minute would be tricky, by which I don't want to imply that I'm particularly special, but I am particularly specialized. The concert was at A-466 meantone for one, which is the appropriate historical pitch but requires a player who can play with historical slide positions. These positions are not just up a semitone from 440, they are up a major semitone for some notes, and up a minor semitone for others. And it was also on both alto and tenor trombone, as I was playing the third cornetto parts. Beyond these technical considerations, any group worth playing with has a way of doing things, and Concerto Palatino definitely does, permeating all articulation, tuning, timing, even the sound of the instruments...

Maxine appealed the application, which involved sending more contracts (thanks to Bruce for digging through my box in Basel for the juicy ones, and to Alex for scanning them in) and more letters (I think I'll frame one of them, people really stepped up to bat here ), and faxing a maximum of 15 pages to the Immigration office. This they did the Friday between American Thanksgiving and the weekend. Maxine called straightaway to make sure that all 15 pages had been received - yes, they had, and they would go off to Officer Tony on Monday for review. So we waited.

And waited.

Maxine was allowed to call once, so it was risky to call too early, in case the review hadn't gone in. Monday went by and Tuesday came - my flight was on Wednesday. On Tuesday afternoon she finally called. "Fax? What fax? We received no fax."

Eventually they admitted that they had received the fax, but they'd lost it. She'd have to send it again, ma'am. They reminded her that they had the right to take 15 days to consider the appeal, and that Officer Tony was on holiday. So she sent the fax again and another sackbut player was found in Boston asked to jump on the plane if the whole thing didn't get cleared up in time.

That evening I played Monteverdi Vespers in Montreal, with the team of new sackbut players I'd been having a great time coaching as well as my old McGill teacher, Dominique Lortie. Beginning the concert already with a lot of tension, I almost started to cry in the Laudate Pueri when the altos started their "ad solus ortuus" cantus firmus and it hit me just how important playing my trombone is to me and just how gutted I would be if I missed playing it again with one-per-part singers and Palatino. Fortunately I had a few tacets yet to recover.

The next morning I woke up early and packed my suitcase to go to the airport on the off-chance that the visa came through, completely convinced that I would be coming straight back again. A few minutes before check-in closed, I got a message from Bruce on Skype (yay for free airport WiFi): "it's approved."

So I checked in, and went off to the airport hotel so that I could print off the approval notice when it was forwarded. Instead I got an email from Stephen Stubbs: "it's not approved yet, don't get on the plane." I tried to call Seattle to ask but couldn't get through, so I went through security and tried again at the gate. Thanks to "Officer Dan" jumping in, it had been through the first round, but not the second, where it could potentially be rejected again. The first flight was to Vancouver though, so there was still 5 hours before I had to go through US customs. I got on the plane and crossed my fingers. According to the email that I got on landing, the approval came when I was over Regina.

But of course, not having the original, I couldn't get through customs - at least not until being sent for questioning. I waited for an hour (meanwhile my connecting flight left) and then a very pleasant immigration officer looked on my computerized file, which hadn't been completely updated. The immigration office had faxed my approval notice to Seattle, but not to my point of entry, so all we had was the scanned version. Next to me, a man was being turned away, told that he was obviously leaving Canada to come to the USA for "a better life." Oh dear. They questioned me on their own about just how specialized I was and finally let me through, half an hour after my plane took of.

Kudos, then, to Air Canada took responsibility since my first flight was late and my luggage had been untraceable between flights, and paid for my dinner and breakfast and put me up in a nice hotel.

I arrived in Seattle at 10 am the next morning, ecstatic after a very sunrise beautiful flight over the rockies. The fog was so thick that we had to circle for 40 minutes, but I made it and they'd shifted the rehearsal around to wait for me before playing the Sonata. The vespers that ensued was easily one of the most fulfilling that I've ever been a part of, and I am still very touched and grateful for all the work that it took to get me there.

And here we are:

Seatlle is a lovely place - very kind and hospitable people, at least judging by the couple who put us up. I also had the luck to be put up with Kiri and Yulia. Kiri played on my very first vespers ever in 2001, and we had some catching up todo! Seattle is also very beautiful: we spent some time wandering through the Arboretum as well as gazing up at Mount Rainier:

Mount Rainier, Looming

Mount Rainier in a better mood

Hugh and Sue in the Arboretum

Both concerts went well. After the first, there was a very positive review which called our instruments "exotic." That's the second time I've seen a North American review that calls cornetts and sackbuts "exotic" - a euphemism for "they don't have a lot of work around here" as far as I can see...

The flight home, in the company of the amazing Laura Pudwell, was spectacular:

The Rockies at Dawn

I never tire of views like this

Or this

The CN tower from over Lake Ontario

Life started to turn Christmassy after that. I'm always a bit amused by the North American need to make sure you aren't liable for other people's injuries - I suppose you have to be, when suing so often parades as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Good thing I saw the sign!

After that there was a lot of hanging out with my mom, sisters, brothers-in-law, and nephews. This story needs no caption...

After a few days in Kitchener it was back to:

This visit was difficult in that I had a Ph.D. application to submit on Friday. I was working on a paper about changing organ continuo at the turn of the 17th century, but it looks like it really changed about 20 years later than I thought it did, meaning that I was reading a lot of the wrong sources and not getting anywhere. So at the last second I decided to improve a paper I'd written in 2002. It was very interesting indeed to see how much I've learned since then - I wound up editing for well over 12 hours....

When I finally handed it in, we took my oldest nephew (Dominic - he's 4) skating for the first time. It was the first time for me in a very long time too - for how dear to my heart skating is, see the last post. I also enjoyed that Dom has learned to speak - something he couldn't really do the last time I saw him. He looked down at his supper the other night and said: "This pizza is very wrong."

On the weekend my mom, both sisters and all three nephews came together and we went to the zoo:

A Rhinoceros!

A very large fish

Spot the Orchid Mantis

Fascinating Nephews

Mum and Baby Gorilla, chillin'

You'd almost think I was in the North
except for the trees

Now I'm back in Montreal, having submitted another Ph.D. application (for which I wrote an analytical paper), with a few days to visit people before I fly out on Tuesday. So I'm going to go do that!

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