It was love at first sight when, around the age of 9, Joan Mainzer Kishkis saw her first harp.
The instrument became the focus of her life and her career, including 40 years as the principal harpist for the Minnesota Orchestra.
“She felt music was universal,” said her sister, Joy Greco of North Carolina.
Kishkis died Dec. 15, just six days shy of her 89th birthday.
The future musician grew up in Erie, Pa. Her mother, a music lover, owned a baby grand and sent her daughter to piano lessons at a young age. But from the beginning, Joan had her eye on her teacher’s big curved harp.
“That harp kept calling her,” Greco said. “She finally asked the teacher if she would show her how it’s played, and my sister was just in love from that moment.”
Greco, who was 13 years younger than her sister, grew up with a harp in the dining room and watching Kishkis play in high school.
“She had the talent,” Greco said. Their parents knew that, she said, “and they wanted her to pursue it.”
Kishkis attended Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and then graduate school at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
But even before she went to graduate school, she spent summers under the tutelage of the renowned harpist Carlos Salzedo, who was a member of the faculty at the Curtis Institute.
Kishkis also became part of a harp quintet known as the Angelaires, who performed around New York City, appeared on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show on national television, and even played alongside celebrities including Frank Sinatra and “the King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman.
The exposure helped her land a job after graduate school as the principal harpist with the Houston Orchestra, where she met her husband of 12 years, Alfred Kishkis.
Two years later, in 1953, she was wooed to the Twin Cities as principal harpist for the Minnesota Orchestra.
She lived in Minnesota for the rest of her life, always playing under her maiden name, Joan Mainzer. She also played for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and other leading ensembles around the country.
But the Minnesota Orchestra was the heart of her professional life, said her former student Laurie Leigh, a Twin Cities harpist.
“She was truly dedicated to the orchestra,” Leigh said.
Kishkis ultimately traveled the world with the orchestra, playing Carnegie Hall in New York and other venues from Europe to Australia.
But she also took time to judge music competitions and to teach a few students.
Leigh said her teacher’s influence was profound. As a teenager, she was on the verge of giving up the harp when she started taking lessons from Kishkis.
“She not only changed me as a harpist, she changed me as a person,” Leigh said. Kishkis was the first adult to tell her that life is not fair, but to still strive to do the best in everything she attempted, Leigh said.
Kishkis retired from the orchestra in 1993. But she continued to live in downtown Minneapolis, within walking distance of Orchestra Hall, where she maintained her connection to the orchestra from the other side of the stage as a frequent member of the audience.
Kishkis walked regularly through Loring Park and took classes at the University of St. Thomas, but she never lost her singular focus on the love of her life.
“She had this persona of excellence,” Leigh said. “True excellence.”
A private memorial service will be held in Minneapolis in the spring. Memorials may be sent to the Minnesota Orchestra.