When I auditioned for the position of associate principal cello of the Minnesota Orchestra, I never imagined I would spend my life here.
I was an ambitious 20-something cellist. I saw Minnesota as the ideal stepping-stone to the next opportunity.
It was a sticky summer day in 1979 and the audition had been daunting. I had to play the most difficult passages of the symphonic literature for the maestro and several members of the orchestra, alone on that enormous stage.
But months of preparation paid off. I won the position, besting other candidates in a grueling contest.
Even though I had no clue what the Twin Cities had to offer, I couldn’t wait to get started. The Minnesota Orchestra was well known throughout the world. I was certain the organization's cachet, as well as the emotional pull of the music, would help me surmount other challenges.
Cold? No problem. I’m from Toronto. I can take it for a couple of years.
I arrived for good on a bleak and frigid day in December.
Picture this: A petite young lady — I'm barely 5-feet tall — fighting to stay upright, my cello case billowing like a sail in the wind. My fingers, which need to be nimble, were numb and stiff as I walked to my first rehearsal.
There was some consolation that my bright red cello case would act as a beacon just in case I got buried in the snow.
As I struggled to get to Orchestra Hall, I noticed the sparse skyline — a few city blocks — and my heart sank. The highest building was the Foshay Tower. Compared to Toronto, a bustling multi-cultural city, this felt like a hamlet.
The Minnesota Orchestra was my consolation. The schedule in December was packed with 13 sold-out performances of "The Nutcracker" ballet at Northrop Auditorium and several concerts of Handel's "Messiah." January would feature a festive New Year’s concert of Strauss waltzes and a Beethoven festival.
At the same time, the Guthrie was doing 50 performances of "A Christmas Carol," the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra had a full holiday schedule, and there were many high-quality offerings at smaller venues.
Our concerts were inspiring, the audiences enthusiastic. The warm applause lingered and sustained me, at least for a little while, through the cold blast of air that pummeled as I walked to my car afterward.
I took an older apartment on Loring Park so I could first get a feel for the city. Instead I felt marooned. Neighbors hibernated. Pickings were slim when it came to food. Hot dish, lefse and lutefisk was as ethnic as it got.
I suffered caffeine withdrawal while looking for an espresso, and a bagel was virtually a foreign object. Grocery store managers were incredulous when I asked for Cajun seasoning, pickerel (I found out it’s called walleye here) or lox, my favorite breakfast food.
My wardrobe was suspect, too, immediately identifying me as an outsider. In Toronto I never left the house without my hair coiffed, makeup carefully applied and chic clothing. My performing attire consisted of black gowns made with smooth silks, elegant taffeta, gossamer velvet and lissome lace. Everything was just right.
But here in Minnesota, I quickly learned that grooming was an exercise in futility.
To be honest, I had to get used to the sight of Mukluks, Uggs, snow pants, down vests, face masks, long underwear, multi-colored mittens and hat hair in the concert hall. But I learned to appreciate the pride Minnesotans felt in never letting the weather stop them from a night at the symphony.
I was introduced to "Minnesota Nice" early on. A few weeks after I moved here, a huge snowstorm dumped several inches of snow and the cities were buried. The temperature dipped well below zero just in time for the evening performance.
I loaded the cello and leaped into the frigid car. On my way to the concert hall every icon on the dashboard lit up.
Then my car died.
I barely managed to pull onto the shoulder on 394. What to do? I knew I couldn’t walk that far in the cold, especially while carrying my cello.
With concert time fast approaching, I made the nerve-wracking decision to leave my valuable 18th-century cello in the car while I went for help. I started to run, hoping the next exit would have an open gas station.
Soon a car pulled up. A man inside said, “Get in. It’s much too cold tonight for a jaunt on the highway.”
So I did. I was more worried about the cello than my own safety.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I told him, almost tearfully, that I had a performance at Orchestra Hall in less than an hour and I had just left my cello in the cold on the highway. The dry winters can wreak havoc on instruments causing the delicate wood to crack.
He drove me right to the stage door. I thanked him profusely and hurried inside to call AAA.
Then I found our stage manager and apprised him of the situation. He jumped right into his car and drove us straight to the stalled vehicle. We had to get there before my car was towed with my cello in the backseat.
AAA arrived just as we pulled up. I retrieved the precious instrument and even made the concert, although it took a couple hours to defrost.
The years have passed. Great music-making and hundreds of concerts have dissipated into the wind, with only a handful cancelled due to weather.
Now I can stop by Rustica, Patrick’s and Nina’s for a croissant and espresso. And there's Bruegger’s for an everything bagel with lox and cream cheese. I love that Thai, Italian and Indian food has become readily available.
I've gotten used to warming up the car before hoisting my cello inside. I swear by my thick full-length down coat, now covered in dog-hair. My winter wardrobe also includes fleece headgear, boots with traction cleats and mittens with hand warmers.
But it’s the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Bártok that can fire even the coldest of hearts. The cello sound, the closest to the human voice, warms me all winter long.
When I return to Toronto for a visit I love the action, hate the gridlock and can’t wait to return to the Twin Cities. I’m a Minnesotan now.
Janet Horvath was the associate principal cello of the Minnesota Orchestra for three decades. She is currently an MFA candidate at Hamline University in St. Paul. Her book "Playing (less) Hurt — an Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians," now published by Amadeus Press, won the gold medal in the health category of the Independent Publishers Book Awards in 2009. Horvath’s essays have appeared in The Atlantic, in music journals and she is a regular contributor for the classical music online magazine Interlude.
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