Emerson Quartet Violinist Philip Setzer Recounts Tense Trip to Taipei
Stony Brook Violin Professor Philip Setzer is a founding member of the world-renowned Emerson String Quartet, Stony Brook University’s Quartet-in-Residence. Below he tells the story of his recent hectic trip to Taipei, determined to make music in the midst of a global pandemic.
So, here’s what I remember. I left my house in New Jersey at 8:30 pm on July 15th, five hours before my flight was to depart JFK for Taipei, at 1:25 am. I had ordered a sanitized stretch limo in order to be absolutely safe, sitting all the way in the back seat with a partition between the driver and me. I had on two masks and goggles. I didn’t wear gloves, but had plenty of hand sanitizer with me. I kept the masks on for the ride, but, in a fit of bravery, I confess I took off my goggles. We reached the airport quickly, arriving at 9:30. I put on my goggles, grabbed a bottle of water, which was included in the steep price of the limo, and ventured out into the wilds of the airport. There was a group of young people standing by the entrance. No one was wearing a mask and they looked at me like I was completely nuts.
Inside the terminal, I found my way to EVA Air check-in, but, before I could go to the check-in counter, I had to pass through a health screening. I expected this and had the copy of my (negative) COVID-19 test out and ready to show them. I felt good about it because I knew that it had been collected and processed within three days of the flight, which was the rule set by the Taiwan CDC. Sure enough, the first words from the woman at the checkpoint were: “Please, may I see your COVID test result?” “Yes, of course,” I said, and proudly handed her the piece of paper in my hand. She looked at it carefully, for a long time, and then looked up and said, “We cannot accept this.”
“What? Why not?”
“It doesn’t have enough information.”
“What do you mean?”
“It doesn’t have your birthday on it, it doesn’t say where the test was processed and it doesn’t say what kind of test it was exactly, other than it was a saliva test, which we don’t accept anyway.”
“But no one told me anything about any of this!”
“It’s all on the Taiwan CDC website. You’ll have to take another test tomorrow and come back in three days. That’s the next time we fly to Taipei.”
“But that’s impossible! I am going to Taipei to be in a festival, teaching and performing with colleagues and students. If I don’t leave tonight, I will be in quarantine when I need to be rehearsing and teaching and will miss being able to play the concert.”
“Sorry, sir, but those are the rules. You should have checked the rules carefully. We are not allowed to go against the rules. Please step aside.”
I temporarily surrendered and went to the side of the line, where I would remain standing for the next 3 ½ hours (so glad I had that water!). The festival I was supposed to participate in is called the Taipei Music Academy and Festival (TMAF). My old friend, Cho-Liang (Jimmy) Lin is the Artistic Director and his wife, Debbie Lin is the Executive Director. They had left a couple of days before from Houston and were already in Taiwan under the mandatory two-week quarantine . I called Jimmy and, luckily, reached him. It was morning for him, 12 hours ahead of New York. I told him what had happened, and he immediately called Debbie. They were already in the quarantine hotel but separated into different rooms (another Taiwan CDC rule I didn’t know about).
What followed was three hours of agonized waiting, trying to talk to the EVA Air people, calls back and forth with Jimmy and Debbie, reaching my doctor who luckily was on call and was able to access my file from his home and send me more information, me calling home to tell my wife what was happening, greeting two other faculty members — violist Hsin-Yun Huang and violinist David Chan — who graciously stayed with me and tried to help by going over to the EVA counter (I wasn’t allowed) to find someone who could help me, and mostly just keeping me company, offering moral support. I was able to forward my doctor’s email to someone at EVA who forwarded it to the Taiwan CDC office in Taipei. Things looked hopeful for the first time in hours.
But no. Still not right. Some of what was written on the doctor’s report was done by hand, so that made the whole document invalid. “Sorry, sir.”
“Jimmy, I don’t think I’m going to make it on this flight. Can you somehow get the quarantine period shortened for me by a couple of days?”
“No, I know that’s not possible.”
“So, what’s the contingency plan?”
“There isn’t any.”
“Yeah, s***. But listen — Debbie is still working on it. Don’t give up yet. She’s trying to pull strings even I didn’t know were possible to try to pull.”
“Ok, we still have some time.” About an hour.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Calling home again. Waiting. Hsin-Yun and David had to get down to the gate. Just as they walked away, someone at the EVA counter waved to me to come over. I yelled “David!” He turned around and I gave him the thumbs up. It looked promising as I gathered my stuff and went to meet the woman who was beckoning me so enthusiastically. She gave me a big smile when I arrived and said, “So, I just want to explain why we can’t put you on this flight.” No, no, no.
All right, now it really looked hopeless. I actually walked out of the terminal, thinking I’d have to find a taxi to take me back to New Jersey. So much for my safe stretch limo. I called Jimmy one more time to tell him the bad news. Jimmy said I should go back into the terminal, not to give up yet. Debbie was trying one last crazy thing. So, I went in and stood by the counter. It was now after 1 am, the flight had boarded. Only two agents were left at the check-in counter and they looked like they were closing up shop. Who the hell is Debbie calling anyway? If anyone can make this happen, it’s Jimmy and, especially, Debbie! But really, this will never work. It’s just not possible.
Ring! The agent’s cellphone rang. She said:
“Okay,” she said and started talking so fast I barely understood what she was saying.
“We’reputtingyouontheflightbutwecan’tcheckyourbagheresoyouhavetotakeyourluggage throughtheTSAyourselfwhichisinthemiddleoftheterminalgothatwayandhurrytheyareholdingtheplaneforyou — GO!!!” Thank you, Debbie, whatever you did!
Setzer is featured in a documentary about the Taipei Music Academy and Festival
I ran with all my luggage, my violin on my back, masks and goggles on, to the TSA security point. No one was there but, luckily, a few officers were coming out on their way home and they called back, “There’s one more!” A couple of TSA officers emerged and one of them asked the other, “Do you know how to work this computer here?” Luckily the other officer said yes. I handed them my boarding pass and passport and they checked me through (goggles and mask off briefly for that part). I lifted my very heavy suitcase up on the belt to go through the X-ray machine, and, before it went through — and this was one of the most trying moments of the whole experience — I had to open it up and surrender my bottle of single malt scotch, packed so snugly.
Got through security, ran down to Gate 6.
“Hurry, hurry — your boarding pass!” Check.
“Your passport!” Check — wait, where is my passport? Wait, what the hell did I do with it? NotinanypocketmaybeIputitinoneofmysuitcasesorviolincaseIrememberhavingtotakemyfiddloutofthecasetoshowthemormaybeIdroppeditonthefloor?
After all this, I don’t have my passport. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? (There may have been a not-so-nice word between the words “you” and “kidding”, just sayin’).
“Sir, we really have to get you on board.”
“I can’t find my passport. I must have left it at security.”
Ok, so I ran back to security.
At security, I asked, “Could you please check that desk right there, just outside security? That’s where I came through. Maybe it’s there.”
“Nope, no passport here, sorry. We looked.”
I ran back to the gate, looked again through everything. No passport (probably that word again between the words “No” and “passport”).
“Sir!” the gate agent shouted. “Please run back to security. Someone from EVA might be able to help you.”
I ran back toward security again. This time, I see one of the EVA agents running toward me (in her high heels!) waving a passport over her head and shouting “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!”
“Thank you so much — where was it?”
“Right there, at that desk just outside security.”
“THAT’S WHERE I SAID IT WAS!” I practically screamed, but more from joy than anger.
Ok, ok, calm down. I got on the plane. Collapsed into my comfy business class seat. No one sitting near me. Had a scotch, started to relax. The sweat began slowly — very slowly, actually — to evaporate from my clothes. I had a lovely 15-hour flight to Taipei.
I made it.
— Philip Setzer
Dear Mr. Setzer (Phil) – What a story! The music goes on, you continue to be the best mentor and advocate, and challenges continue. Thanks for your story. Best wishes, Julie Rulon Greene (retired from Staller Center!)
I guess I could just shrug and say that all’s well that ends well, and compliment Philip for his tenacity and determination to share his love of music and his great talent. But I can’t help also thinking that no one should participate in breaking the rules when it comes to a lethal pandemic that has caused nearly 1.5 million deaths. If we allow exceptions based on good intentions or unique talents, we make following the rules optional, rather than mandatory, and we’ve seen how well that works in America (sic). Pandora’s box has already been opened wide, and now we need everyone, not merely some of us, to nail it back closed.
Ah, but the bottom line is this. He followed the rules; only the documentation of the extra-stringent Taiwanese needed to be bent. And when he arrived, he followed the same quarantine time period as was originally required, and that’s what really mattered.
I’ve known Phil since we were both 27 at The Hartt School; I was a grad student, and he, a budding faculty member. The only thing Phil has ever done wrong in his life is play a French violin with a German bow…
Well done, Phil Setzer!
That is one of the more harrowing travel stories I have heard.
Thanks for giving us all goosebumps!
Richard Larson (SBU Linguistics)
Great, Phil, you made it. I hope all is ok for you and the Emerson Quartet. My best greetings and wishes from Geneva. Gilles Champoud.