There was a lot of hand-wringing in local classical music circles when Kate Tamarkin stepped down last year as conductor of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. The public is inclined to believe it’s the person behind the podium who makes it all happen harmoniously. In fact, the most crucial player at the VSO is not the maestro — or anyone else on stage, for that matter. It’s Eleanor Long. For 25 years, the former oboist has perfected a solo administrative act that, if properly publicized, would steal the show.
“My predecessor once said Eleanor Long is the Vermont Symphony, and in many ways that is right,” says Executive Director Alan Jordan. To the Department of Motor Vehicles she is, too — her license plate reads “VSO.” For the last quarter-century, Long has been in charge of auditioning, contracting and managing the players who are the symphony's sound source. She is also the librarian, in charge of procuring and distributing music to players through the mail.
“In other orchestras, these would be separate jobs,” Tamarkin reports from the road in Texas. “That should tell you something.” Furthermore, when she is not proofreading program copy, Long scripts, schedules and coordinates all the school concerts the symphony stages around the state. “Eleanor has an amazing ability to do a million things at once, and keep track of myriad details,” Tamarkin continues. “She is also the person who remembers all the birthdays — small things that bring meaning to other people. You could call her the emotional core of the organization.”
Or the institutional memory. In tenure terms, Long has already lived up to her name — after her, the next-most senior full-time employee at the VSO has been there all of three years. Long was there for the fiery reign of conductor Efrain Guigui. She was on the job when Executive Director Morris Block died in a canoeing accident on Lake Champlain in 1986. Recently, when the symphony lost its conductor, executive director and marketing coordinator in rapid succession, Long soldiered on, assisting as de facto executive director until Jordan learned the job.
In March, the symphony recognized its most enduring employee by announcing the endowment of an orchestral position in her name — a rare honor considering her age. Long is 48. In this case, the “chair” is a real one, occupied by the second oboist, Julie Verret. Long sat in that very spot for 16 years before she gave up her instrument to work exclusively in the wings. “That’s where Eleanor likes to be,” says Jordan, noting his “humble” orchestra manager is easily embarrassed. “What matters most to her is the final product — the performance.”
Long grew up in a family of amateur musicians in South Burlington, when Spear Street was an unpaved road and suburban Burlington was still considered “country.” Her parents remained on the property — a red farmhouse with adjoining apple orchard that is the closest thing to a farm between Allen Road and Swift Street. Long’s father Littleton played bassoon in high school. Her mother Carolyn played violin seriously in college, but after four children, followed her muse to the Vermont Youth Orchestra. She “fell into” the manager job in 1968 and, at 81, is still in charge.
There was no television growing up in the Long household, and Eleanor, the second-oldest of four children, remembers music was always playing — “some folk, but mostly classical. I remember my brother and I playing marbles and listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. It was our favorite piece.”
That brother had already taken up the flute when Eleanor got “bitten by the bug” at age 14. There was an oboe at the high school, and they needed somebody to play it. “I can remember lying in bed the night before I was supposed to get this instrument, and being so thrilled with the idea that I was going to be playing,” she recalls.
Long was less enthusiastic about making reeds — a Sisyphean task visited on obsessive oboists — but perhaps as a result of the constant toil she developed a strong work ethic. “It might take an hour to make a reed you can play on, but to have it settle in and be something you want to use for a concert might take 10 hours,” Long notes.
Describing herself as “relatively normal, as oboists go,” Long says her mother helped her out with reed-making, “which was kind of amazing,” she acknowledges. “When you’re in high school, and an overachiever and all that, you’re just so out straight.” Long was valedictorian of her class at South Burlington High.
She continued to play at Brown University, in the orchestra and various chamber music ensembles. But instead of majoring in music, she went for a degree in English, figuring, “if I took courses in music it would destroy my love of it” — a theory she later amended. In her senior year, she auditioned for the Vermont Symphony and scored the second oboe seat. Relying on her trusty Rambler American, she spent her last year of college burning up the road between Rhode Island and Vermont. It gave her a life-long appreciation for the Vermont Symphony players who hail — and haul — from out of state.
Once resettled in Vermont, Long launched her academic music education “as an outpatient” at the University of Vermont. Then she petitioned the symphony for a two-year leave of absence in order to attend grad school at the University of Iowa. The school was recommended by a bassoonist who thought it would suit Long better than a cutthroat place like Juilliard. “I was nervous. I was afraid. I was worried that I would be at the bottom of the heap, which, as it turned out, was not true,” Long says. She got into every ensemble she auditioned for, including the Tri-City Symphony based in Davenport.
With a master's in music, Long returned to Vermont in 1979 to reclaim her seat with the symphony, and to marry the principal oboist, who had once been her teacher. The symphony personnel manager was leaving at the time, and so was the librarian. Long took on both jobs and soon was working full-time in the office. Though the marriage ended, for years Long juggled performing, teaching and arts administration, striving for perfection in every area.
“To work all those hours, and make reeds and practice and perform, was just too much,” she says. “I took a year off from playing just to see what it was like to have a normal life. I have to say I really enjoyed it.” She never went back on stage.
Long’s musical dues, however, were paid as far as the players were concerned. “She is one of us. She has sat there, which gives her a perspective that is absolutely invaluable, and unusual,” says Orwell-based Hilary Hatch; a 17-year violin veteran with the symphony. Describing Long as a “musician’s musician,” Hatch insists “Eleanor has a fabulous attitude toward other musicians which reaches through the telephone ... It’s a real siren song.”
And she delivers. Long is famous not only for knowing the ability and availability of every classical musician in Vermont, but for little things — like the goodies she bakes for rehearsals, and her signage at concerts. “We have to play in a lot of venues that are not familiar to us, and that means changing clothing in locker rooms and bathrooms,” Hatch continues. Eleanor gets out in front with directions to point the way. “It’s like she’s saying, ‘This is your home. I want to make you as comfortable as possible.’ Most symphonies don’t even have an ambiance. They have a conductor and a board, but they don’t have a soul. This one does.”
Soul is a valuable selling point when you represent a part-time symphony competing for capable musicians with orchestras all over New England. But Long takes nothing for granted. She gets her requests in early, and doesn’t give up on a musician she has in mind until he or she says no. She exudes efficiency, instantaneously producing a document detailing the status of available musicians and their commitments to upcoming summer concerts. But Long is as fun as she is exacting, exploding into bursts of laughter often and usually at her own expense.
It’s easy to imagine how she gets musicians to sign on the dotted line. The next step is getting the music to them at least a month in advance of the performance. Long pulls out another chart to show where the score for each piece is coming from — whether it is rented, borrowed or owned. Once she has the music, Long sends the appropriate parts off to the various string principals, who mark them up with “bowings,” and return the pages to Long.
Like an editor, Long coordinates all the ins and outs of the paper-pushing process, and is ultimately responsible for delivering the music to the players on time. “It is not unusual for me to be thinking in January about bowings in June,” she explains on a short tour of the symphony library she maintains — floor-to-ceiling stacks of music organized alphabetically by composer. Getting it all done requires meticulous vigilance and, when people miss their deadlines, occasional FedEx service.
Whatever it takes to keep the baton waving — without drawing a whole lot of attention to herself. Hatch, who works as a nurse, credits Long with “pituitary” power. “She is the master gland of the organization,” says the violinist, “regulating everything while leaving only the subtlest of clues.” She also knows Long is the least likely person to blow her own horn, and the reluctant orchestra manager confirms it. Long credits her success to “organizational skills,” describing her role in self-deprecating terms like “den mother” and “worrier.”
Not surprisingly, every time she’s been asked to apply for the position of executive director, the former oboist has politely declined. She knows being first fiddle means fundraising, public speaking and dealing with a board. “It’s a level of fiscal responsibility I don’t envy or crave,” she says. “I just think that’s terrifying. I don’t think I would ever sleep a wink.”
She had a similar response for the education director of the National Symphony Orchestra, who was in Vermont last summer setting up a residency. After a couple of days on the road with Long, she said, “If you ever thought about moving, I’m sure you could get a job at the Kennedy Center,” Long recalls. “But my parents are here, my friends are here. The symphony is like my family, really. A lot of the musicians have been here forever. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”