In that moment, I felt like I was riding with Rhiannon, the mythological queen of Celtic folklore.
Mairwen Jones, my customer, and I were stuck in the parking garage at Montréal's Trudeau Airport trying to hatch an escape strategy. All the signs were in French, which neither of us spoke. I'm an American and, sadly, can barely speak English. Mairwen was from Wales and spoke a delightfully Welsh-inflected English. Maybe she also speaks the Welsh language, I thought, not that that would help in our present predicament.
By trial and error, we attained our freedom and were soon on the highway en route to the Champlain Bridge and points south. Mairwen sat beside me in the taxi, the picture of a classy young woman with her understated traveling gear and bright red lips. On the back seat rested her violin. I had thought up a "joke" while waiting for her to clear customs, and it was time to lay it on her.
"So, I guess you're the second-most-famous Welsh performer named 'Jones,'" I wittily postulated. Before she could react, I broke into my karaoke version of "What's New Pussycat?" complete with the whoa, whoa, whoas.
To my relief, Mairwen laughed and said, "It's funny you say that, because my parents loved Tom Jones, particularly Dad. I grew up with that as my soundtrack."
"So you weren't exposed that much to classical music?"
I asked that because Mairwen was a concert violinist. I was driving her to Middlebury College, where she and her quartet were booked as artists-in-residence for the winter term. I gathered that they would also perform in a number of formal concerts.
"No, not much," she replied. "Mostly from my grandfather. He actually bought me my first violin when I was, like, 12. I took some lessons, but my real passion was gymnastics. I pursued that competitively through high school before I switched back to music. One teacher encouraged me to audition, and I got into a top London music academy."
"Was your technique comparable to the other students'?"
"No, I was way behind. They had all started early and studied with the best instructors — the traditional schools and methods. My playing has always been expressive and intuitive. But eventually I learned better technique."
"Well, your musical path, however unconventional, seems to have served you well. You've fashioned a promising career as a classical musician, where only the very best succeed. I checked you out online earlier in the day, by the way, so I know you've been doing great."
"You're not an online stalker, are you?" she asked, chuckling. "Actually, I might be flattered."
Approaching the bridge at 4:30 p.m., I was pleasantly astounded (it's not too strong a word) by the lack of rush-hour traffic. Was it some weird Canadian holiday with which I was unfamiliar? As often as I get up here, I can't seem to get a grip on the Montréal traffic flow. Any timing strategies or supposed shortcuts I've attempted in the past have failed miserably, to the point where I've hoisted the white flag and simply taken what the city threw at me. (This is in sharp contrast to my finely honed street smarts in hometown Burlington, where I'm nothing less than a traffic ninja.)
"On your concert tours, have you ever run into any world-famous classical players?" I asked.
"I have," Mairwen replied. "Last year, at a big benefit concert, I was backstage with Yo-Yo Ma. I mean, me and about a thousand other people. Everybody wanted to meet him, so I didn't want to be a nuisance. But we have the same manager, and he encouraged me — well, pushed me, actually — to introduce myself. I summoned my courage, walked over to him and mumbled something. Oh, dear God, I probably sounded like such a fangirl! But I am a huge fan. Yo-Yo Ma connects with an audience like no other. That's something I aspire to."
"I know what you mean," I said. "You can feel it even when you watch Yo-Yo perform on television."
"I've been in an audience watching a brilliant technical player, but when they play, like, in a bubble, totally isolated in their own world, I've come away unsatisfied. I've always tried to reach out and feel the audience when I perform, to connect intimately with them. Isn't that, like, the whole point?"
"That's deep," I said, "and I agree with you, though I've never heard the idea expressed with so much clarity or passion."
"My husband is a conductor," she continued, "and he fell into a rut where the orchestra was always, like, a millisecond behind. He didn't know what to do but assumed there was a fault in his use of the baton, some technical problem."
"So he came to you for advice?"
"He did. That's because he's smart." Mairwen paused to chuckle and shot me a wifely smile. "I told him he needs to breathe with the orchestra. It should be as if he's singing with them. It's the same principle when I play in the quartet. When we're really, you know, cooking, we breathe together as one. Well, he put into practice this breathing suggestion, and it solved his timing problem."
"You're sure you're not a yogi? Maybe in a past life? Because what you're talking about sounds kind of mystical or magical."
I glanced over at Mairwen, and she winked at me. In that moment, I felt like I was riding with Rhiannon, the mythological queen of Celtic folklore, made famous in our time by the Stevie Nicks song. Who knows? Perhaps all the saints, wizards and wild witches aren't restricted to some shrouded past.
"Maybe I am," she said, the perfect response to my joshing. "We're talking about music," she reminded me, her blue eyes twinkling in the dashboard lights, "and that's nothing if not a mystical and magical realm."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.