The unopened message stared at Wenmin Zhang like a dare.
Seven months ago, Zhang sat in his childhood home in Beijing and looked at a computer screen with his future on the line.
Good news meant that Zhang's dream of joining a professional orchestra had come true. It meant jumping on a life-changing flight and taking residence in an apartment he already held more than 6,000 miles away in a city called Omaha.
Bad news meant no job, no flight and no Omaha. Worse, it meant the snide judgments of skeptical aunts and uncles would become his life's narrative at age 27: that everything he'd done since the age of 5 to get to this point had been pointless. He had failed.
Zhang stared back at the message, afraid to open it.
When the Omaha Symphony begins its 2013-2014 season this weekend, a new second bassoonist will sit center stage among the orchestra's woodwinds.
The symphony held auditions last summer for a rare and coveted full-time position within the 74-person orchestra. More than 60 hopefuls paid their own way to Omaha for a stress-filled, single-day tryout. All but one left disappointed.
Among those competing was Zhang, then a first-year graduate student at Rice University in Houston. He already had placed second — first loser — at auditions in New Orleans, Birmingham, Ala., and Hong Kong, and he was beginning to identify with the role. He started to see himself like his favorite soccer team, the Netherlands national team: good, but not quite good enough.
It played out the same in Omaha. Zhang made it to the second round, then to the semifinals. From there he landed in the finals, where competition was so fierce it required yet another round called the super-finals.
He was one of two players left, each on his own path to answering the question: What does it take to become a bassoonist for the Omaha Symphony?
Zhang stood in line at a McDonald's in Idyllwild, Calif., on a fall day in 2005 trying to muster the courage to order.
He had arrived in the United States not long before to attend the pre-collegiate Idyllwild Arts Academy. He left Beijing a promising bassoon player with his sights on a career as a professional musician. He was there to hone the skills he'd developed since middle school, when he'd given up the drama and pressure of the violin for an instrument he instantly loved.
Zhang read and wrote English well enough, but in a country of native speakers his conversational English proved embarrassingly shaky. Everyday activities became monumental challenges. He feared the grocery store, never quite sure how much he owed or what he was owed back.
Now, he stood in line at a fast-food restaurant and slowly approached the counter. He repeated the words in his head, summoning the nerve to order.
“Number one big burger,” he said. Everyone around him laughed, or at least seemed to laugh, which feels like the same thing.
Breakthroughs came in spurts. People like Carolyn Beck helped. Beck, the bassoon instructor at Idyllwild and principal bassoonist for two California symphonies, didn't mind that lessons with Zhang stretched beyond their allotted times, or that they became as much about language as music.
Mishaps at grocery stores and restaurants were embarrassing; misunderstandings in school, as part of an orchestra, heeding the calls and commands of a conductor, could prove life-shattering. How could he play for a professional orchestra if he couldn't understand what he was being asked to do?
Sessions with Beck helped, but even then Zhang worried at times he'd exhausted her patience.
One day, as he struggled to understand a direction, Beck seemed to hit a breaking point. She stormed out of the room. Shaken, Zhang watched as she returned a few moments later and looked him dead in the eye.
“Entrance,” she said.
It clicked. He suddenly understood what his teacher meant when she said the word “entrance.”
He arrived at Idyllwild a raw talent, technically imperfect but accustomed to working hard from a disciplined upbringing.
Two years later, he delivered a recital that moved Beck to tears. He played the piece, a Vivaldi concerto for bassoon, so beautifully and effortlessly that other faculty members approached her afterward with congratulations.
Zhang had reached a new echelon. He passed on a spot at the Juilliard School, the prestigious arts conservatory in New York, in favor of the even more exclusive Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where just 4 percent of applicants make the cut. Then he earned his way to Rice, considered by some to be the best university in the country for bassoon, which delivered him to Omaha and the final stage of a professional audition.
Such accomplishments would be extraordinary for any musician. Zhang achieved them while learning to speak English.
“He defied gravity in a sense,” Beck said.
The first time Zhang saw the word “Omaha,” it was printed on an audition sheet. The Omaha Symphony had an opening for a second bassoon player. So Zhang and a few of his fellow students at Rice made the trip north, shelling out hundreds of dollars for what was almost certainly a date with rejection.
Auditioning for an orchestra job is agonizing, on par with how writer Neil Steinberg once described the national spelling bee — a process of “weeding out the losers and creating increasingly smaller sets of winners who move on to lose at higher levels.” Only at symphony auditions, a livelihood is on the line.
Beck compares a musician performing at a professional audition to a figure skater competing at the Olympics. Both work toward perfection their entire lives, then are judged by a single, nerve-wracking performance that might last minutes. But “the unknowns and variables in an audition are greater,” she said.
Rico Amador, the personnel manager for the Omaha Symphony, is responsible for running the audition process. Amador coaches his proctors to be as calming as possible, but the reality can't be sugarcoated.
“Most of the day, I'm giving everybody bad news,” he said.
In Omaha last summer, Zhang took the stage four times before the super-finals, each time shielded from the committee by a curtain of piping and drape. For the ultimate round, the curtain dropped and each candidate performed on stage with James Compton, the symphony's principal bassoonist.
Then they waited.
Zhang had been through the process enough to know that if Amador shook his hand first, he'd lost. He prepared for it, convinced he'd finished second, and in a strange way this certainty calmed him. Ideally, he would be declared “runner-up,” an important distinction that meant if the winner declined or could not take the position, it would be offered to Zhang.
Amador entered the room. He extended his hand to the other player, named him runner-up, and then walked to Zhang and offered him a job.
Zhang called his parents right away. At the hotel later that night, he and his fellow students celebrated over beers.
“Finally, I got one,” he thought.
Then it went to pieces.
What followed was a red-tape nightmare, the sort of bureaucratic debacle that would be boring and comical if a young man's dreams didn't hang in the balance.
Because Zhang took a job with the Omaha Symphony, he did not re-enroll at Rice. Because he did not re-enroll at Rice, he let his student visa expire.
By itself, this was not a problem. He hired a lawyer to help him apply for a work visa. But the lawyer, he says, applied for the wrong kind. She filed paperwork for the sort of visa that foreign celebrities like Hugh Jackman or Shakira would need — people recognized internationally for their work.
The government sent his application back and wanted him to provide proof of “extraordinary achievement,” such as his last album.
“That's impossible,” Zhang said. “I'm a bassoonist.”
As a result, when the symphony's 2012-2013 season began last September, Zhang was in Beijing.
The symphony helped Zhang find a new lawyer, but time was running out. If that visa application was denied, they would offer Zhang's job to his runner-up. It would be an easy transition. The runner-up was already in Omaha, filling Zhang's seat as a substitute.
“We would have no choice,” said Amador, the personnel manager. “Legally we can't hire him. At that point, I would have to ask the runner-up.”
So Zhang sat in Beijing this spring staring at the email from his lawyer. He prayed and then clicked.
Within a week he held his visa. Before another month passed, he landed in Omaha.
He moved into his apartment west of downtown. He bought a bike, never having driven a car.
He made new friends. Compton, the principal bassoonist, welcomed Zhang into his home, took him out to dinner with his family. He offered to help him get his driver's license.
In the meantime, another bassoonist bought Zhang a headlight for his bike. The tuba player gave him a helmet.
Zhang played the last couple of months of the 2012-2013 season, then spent the summer practicing and making reeds in preparation for his first full season.
Every couple of days he Skyped with his family in Beijing, holding his laptop to the window so they could see bright blue skies, free of smog.
Never leave, they told him.
He learned to take the bus across town to an Asian supermarket. More often, he walked to the Mexican grocery store near his apartment. He was headed there the day it occurred to him that in the rush to get out of China and into his new home he had neglected one important task.
He needed a haircut.
Not sure where to go, he walked out of his apartment building, only to encounter a red-white-and-blue barber's pole twirling one building over. Inside, Zhang told the barber about his good fortune, how he left home and, voilà, there was his shop.
Across the room, someone asked if everything in the United States was proving that easy for him.
Zhang, the new second bassoon for the Omaha Symphony, sat in the barber chair and laughed.