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As a quintessential New Yorker, I mainly thought of Minnesota as the setting for the popular Mary Tyler Moore television show. But traveling with Midori and Bob McDonald this past autumn to two rural communities in Western Minnesota as part of the Partners in Performance (“PiP”) recital series opened my eyes to the wonders of this extraordinary part of the country.

Bob and I arrived in Minneapolis from New York on a Wednesday morning. We were met by Midori, who, as is typical for her, had flown through the night from Los Angeles. She appeared in a newly rented car. Despite my polite skepticism about Midori’s driving abilities (it was the first time I had ever seen her behind the wheel, and she had gotten her license only recently), she navigated the roads expertly into the city.

For the rest of the day, the two musicians immediately launched into an all-day practice session at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Center, while I “played hooky” and explored the extraordinary Walker Art Center, housed in a shimmering building designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

At dinner, we satisfied Midori’s cravings for pasta in a local Italian restaurant. Newly fueled by spaghetti Bolognese, we then made the three-hour trek to our first stop on the PiP tour: Fergus Falls, located in Minnesota’s evocatively named “Otter Tail county.”

Early the next morning, Midori and Bob began practicing at the local performance venue. It looked like a little cinema, located in the center of town, and glowed with inviting lights in the evening.

Meanwhile, I explored Fergus Falls’ charming, “old world” downtown (which included a surprisingly good Mexican restaurant). True to its name, the town also had a little river running through it, although no otter tails were in sight. As I explored the few streets in the center of town, I was asked more than once where I was from, and why I was visiting. When I explained to one waitress at the local coffee shop that PiP had chosen Fergus Falls to benefit from a concert by Midori and Bob, I was met with a flush of pride.

During the day, it became clear that today was Midori’s birthday (a secret that was let out both by Bob, and by an announcement on National Public Radio). We marked the occasion in low-key Midwestern fashion, with a cupcake and candle.

That evening’s recital was nothing short of stunning. It consisted of Dvořák, Romantic Pieces, Op.75; Franck, Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major; Beethoven Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, Op. 30, No.1; and Corigliano Sonata for Violin and Piano.

The audience included fans of all ages. (I had arrived in a blazer and tie, and was clearly overdressed among the sea of plaid shirts in the audience.) Large school groups from Fargo, N.D., had bought tickets for the Fergus Falls concert. The presenter very smartly decided to add more chairs to squeeze in extra fans to the sold-out event.

It was inspirational to see an audience so entranced by the music, and to be part of an event that was unheard of in such a small town.

After the concert, Midori held a Q&A session with the children in the audience. One charming girl, who was clearly trying to figure out how much time she needed to practice violin, asked how long Midori had practiced each day as child. Another wanted to know what the name “Midori” means. There was generous time for photographs with Midori afterwards.

The executive director of the Center for the Arts in Fergus Falls, Rebecca Petersen, could not have been more welcoming. In fact, at the end of the evening, she invited us to her lovely home, where we sat around a cozy table, enjoyed some Norwegian cheese and tea, chatted with her and her husband Mark, and admired their dog.

The following morning, we piled back into the car and drove two hours to Dawson, MN. We passed silos and windmills, and stopped along the way to photograph some particularly picturesque cows.

I had thought that Fergus Falls, with its population of 13,722, was small, so imagine my surprise when we arrived at Dawson — population 1,500.

Happily, however, Dawson proved to be just as warm and welcoming, thanks largely to the graciousness of the presenter, The Dawson-Boyd Arts Association, and its director, Luanne Fondell. In fact, as we pulled up at the performance venue — the Memorial Auditorium at Dawson-Boyd High School — a teenager watched us get out of the car and, obviously aware of the evening’s concert, said without hesitation: “Hi there, Midori. Welcome!”

I soon learned that Dawson has one of the oldest and most successful string programs for a city its size in the state of Minnesota.

Again, Midori and Bob spent the day practicing. I spent the afternoon riding a “corn combine” on a farm about an hour from Dawson (about the last place anyone would ever think to find me), thanks to friends who by sheerest coincidence own a farm nearby.

I returned to Dawson that evening in time for the concert.

That day turned out to be one that I will never forget. The experience of sitting atop a huge agricultural machine cutting corn in the middle of Minnesota in the afternoon, and then attending a virtuoso concert in the evening just an hour away, still seems surreal.

The concert itself was, again, spectacular – and even included an encore of “Syncopation” by Fritz Kreisler. Thirty students from Worthington traveled two hours each way to attend. The buzz in the audience was palpable.

After the recital, Midori again spent a long time greeting the audience. As a result, we got back in our car very late that night. We drove the three hours back to Minneapolis, arriving in the wee hours of the morning at a Travelodge, near the Minneapolis airport, for just a few hours sleep. (So much for any fantasies about the “glamorous” life of performers!) The next morning, Midori hopped on plane back to L.A., and Bob and I returned to NY.

Just a few days before the two concerts, a front-page feature in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran the headline: “How did Fergus Falls and Dawson land concerts by world-class violinist Midori? They asked.”

I could answer that PiP could not have chosen more deserving recipients than these two wonderful communities.

For more information about Partners in Performance


Midori and Bob with Luanne Fondell, director of the Dawson-Boyd Arts Association, and Claire Givens (event sponsor).

Signing programs for audience members after the concert.

Photos: Dan Fondell