On a recent Friday morning, two star violists readied themselves for a rehearsal.
Rebecca Albers placed one hand on the piano, using the other to scoop up her 16-month-old son. Maiya Papach kneeled on the floor, nestling a small violin beneath their 4-year-old daughter's chin. For just a moment, their St. Paul home, which had been a blur of kids and dogs, was still.
Then the couple's daughter began to play.
She bowed the string tentatively at first but by the piece's end was grinning. As she took a bow, everyone, including their 16-month-old, applauded.
Most weekend nights, you can find Papach, 46, performing as principal violist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Albers, 40, as principal violist of the Minnesota Orchestra. They've played Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. But these are the performances they're living for, these days.
Their life here, filled with string quartets and wood blocks and walks to the park, is made possible by the fact that the Twin Cities boasts two acclaimed orchestras, a rarity.
"To have two violists of that caliber as principals in the same city — not to mention the fact that they're married — is pretty incredible," said Erin Keefe, concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra and a friend so close the three refer to one another as "sister wives."
Though neither grew up in Minnesota, Albers and Papach have recruited a crew from their Cathedral Hill neighborhood, loved ones who babysit during concerts and bridge the half-hour gaps when their rehearsals overlap.
Papach's sister, who is pursuing a doctorate in composition at the University of Minnesota, lives two doors down. Albers' sister Julie Albers became the SPCO's principal cellist in 2014. Their mother, a Suzuki violin teacher, and stepdad moved to Minneapolis in 2019. In fact, so many family members have settled in Minnesota that they note which family members don't live in town, rather than which ones do.
"Pretty huge viola jobs have come up — like once-in-a-generation jobs — and we've looked the other way because we like it here," Albers said. "We have our family, we have our community. We're really, really grateful to both be able to live and work here.
"Hopefully that continues to be the case."
'A haven for each other'
Their love story begins, fittingly, at a classical music festival.
The two had met before, at the Juilliard School in New York City, where they shared a teacher. But they didn't get to know each other until the summer of 2006, at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. Albers nursed a crush on Papach, who fascinated her, "but you had no idea," Albers said, sitting on the rug beside Papach, as their son tugged on her shirt and their daughter pressed a picture book into her lap. "No idea," Papach said.
The next summer, the two greeted one another with a hug. "I wasn't really thinking about it," Papach said, "but we hugged and my body was like, 'I want to stay here.'"
They got engaged just a few months later.
Albers had moved to Michigan to join a quartet and Papach had been freelancing in New York City when Papach nabbed the SPCO job in 2008. Albers decided to follow. Then the Minnesota Orchestra had an opening, and she auditioned, becoming assistant principal viola in 2010. She won the principal position, becoming the orchestra's lead violist and go-to soloist, in 2017.
"She takes big, bold leaps of faith," Papach said admiringly. Same goes for having kids: "I always thought I would like to have a family," Papach said, "but I was a little more of a scaredy-cat."
On her instrument and in her home, Albers is the natural leader, the organizer. Friends and colleagues describe Papach as the dreamer, the searcher. The physical comedian, too. Explaining why she'll never switch from a paper score to an iPad screen, Papach pulled her arms tight to her chest and jutted her head forward, mimicking a dinosaur.
"They're so different from one another, but in the same way they are as players, they really complement each other," said Keefe, who performs with both violists in Accordo, a string ensemble composed of present and former principal players from both orchestras. "They're really able to get inside each other's heads and become a haven for each other."
A haven for their friends, too. "Our job can be very stressful and personal," said Steven Copes, the SPCO's concertmaster. "You need someone you can trust to talk about things with, to put your head on straight." The two of them, but especially Papach, have "been there for me as I've gone through some very difficult times."
During the Minnesota Orchestra's lockout, then again during the pandemic's shutdown, Keefe found herself spending most nights with Albers and Papach. They're the kind of friends you don't need to clean for, she said, the friends you can wear pajamas around. To most people, Keefe's husband, Osmo Vänskä, is former music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. But to Albers and Papach's daughter, he's "ukki," the Finnish word for grandfather.
Next month, when both Albers and Papach will perform with Accordo, creating "a scheduling nightmare," as Papach put it, Vänskä will babysit.
Playing together is easy, the pair said. "We have different strengths on the instrument, but similar instincts," Albers said. "So we might be doing different articulations, but the overall intention is united."
The respect they have for one another extends to the music, she continued. "I don't know that we could actually have a solid relationship if one of us didn't respect the other completely musically.
"It's a funny thing how much the music bleeds into our lives."
'It keeps opening doors'
As Albers gathered boots and mittens, hats and a helmet, Papach slung harnesses on the dogs, an 11-year-old mutt with an underbite and 5-year-old with a brindled coat. After starts and stops, they headed to the park.
Their daughter swooshed down the sidewalk on her bike. Their son toddled sideways toward a stick, then toward a tree. But half a block in, they found a rhythm.
Becoming parents has shifted their lives, their musical lives included. There are the mundane things: the lack of sleep, the scarcity of time. Papach prepares more by reading, by listening. Gone are the pre-concert naps. Albers often practices in the kitchen, once the kids are asleep.
But Albers believes having kids has made her more creative, too. "Being a parent is so much experimentation, just trying to figure out, what is going to get her to put on her jacket today," she said, laughing.
As a toddler growing up in a musical family in Colorado, Albers tugged at the scrolls of her two older sisters' instruments. She bothered them so much that finally they gave her a violin.
Papach's mother, too, was a musician, a flutist — "orchestral music was her religion." Born in South Bend, Ind., Papach spent much of her childhood in Japan, where she fell in love with music. It means more to her now than it ever has.
"It keeps opening doors," she said. "The same piece can reveal itself totally differently at different points in life, depending on what you're doing, what you're feeling, what you're going through." Papach nodded toward her daughter.
"So that's what I want her to have."