Erin Keefe is poised on the edge of her dressing-room practice chair, focused on a complicated section of the Beethoven Septet she will perform with a chamber group in the Orchestra Hall atrium in downtown Minneapolis later that Saturday night.
Her shiny auburn hair matches the burnished tones of her 1732 Gagliano violin so perfectly that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The rich sound emanating from her instrument shimmers even brighter.
“I’ve never played this one before,” she said in the matter-of-fact manner that comes as naturally to her as putting bow to strings. “It’s best to have more rehearsal time, but I tend to do well under pressure.”
Keefe, 35, has just briskly summed up one of the key reasons she’s so suited to her job as the Minnesota Orchestra’s concertmaster. She is straightforward, centered and almost unnervingly calm as she prepares for another night onstage as the Twin Cities’ most prominent violinist — now married to the orchestra’s music director, Osmo Vänskä.
Although her position ranks second only to his, that status doesn’t translate as it might in most work environments. She must communicate Vänskä’s vision to the rest of the strings — the most important sections of an orchestra — while providing practical direction on bowing and performing solos.
The job is like landing a major role in a play, based more on talent for an art form than in climbing rungs on a management ladder.
Steven Copes, concertmaster for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, has known Keefe for about 10 years, since they hit it off at a chamber music festival in Seattle. He calls her “exceptionally swift. She has a lot of antennae out and absorbs information about both people and music at a frighteningly quick speed.”
Fate in a doorway
Keefe’s career path could have been different if her girlhood home had had a wider entryway.
The only child of an English professor father and a mother who headed the HR department at Smith College, Keefe grew up in the western Massachusetts city of Northampton. While her parents aren’t musically trained — her mother doesn’t read notes — her father is an enthusiastic classical fan and wanted his daughter to be a concert pianist.
When the chance came to buy a neighbor’s piano, it wouldn’t fit through the front door. Early aspirations to be a dancer also were quashed because “I was awful,” she said.
So the violin became her focus — fortunately, she said, holding up a petite hand, because “my hands are too small for the piano. Steve Copes calls me Baby Carrot Fingers.”
Keefe brought an impressive résumé when she signed on in September 2011 after a two-year search to replace Jorja Fleezanis, who had been concertmaster for 20 years — degrees from the Curtis Institute and Juilliard; grand prizes in several competitions; a solo recording; performances in many top chamber groups and festivals.
It was Fleezanis who suggested that Keefe try out for the job when they met five years ago at a chamber festival.
“The search for my replacement was going on, and I was obviously mindful and eager about it,” said Fleezanis, now a professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “When I heard Erin play and watched her in action, I saw the dynamics, that she had the strength necessary to carry the focus and concentration of colleagues.
“There’s a gut feeling you can have about people, but there also has to be chemistry. And there’s a big difference between freelancing and having that rudder in your hand day to day.”
She walked up to Keefe and asked: What would you say to the idea of being concertmaster of a major orchestra? “She didn’t flinch or suddenly go wide-eyed,” Fleezanis said. “She was at the right point in her life for that kind of platform. She was ready.”
Lockout and a new love
Keefe’s extensive chamber music experience, with all its requisite subtle body language and eye contact, helped make the transition natural.
But she barely had time to settle in before the contract dispute with musicians and resulting lockout put the Minnesota Orchestra on forced hiatus from November 2012 to February 2014. Like many members during that time, she explored career options, including a concertmaster tryout with the New York Philharmonic.
Meanwhile, her personal life went through some upheaval. She divorced her first husband, Russian cellist Andrey Tchekmazov, in 2013.
Last April, she married Vänskä, who himself had been divorced since 2009.
When the couple announced their engagement on Facebook the previous January, the new union caused a few rumbles of concern among board members for two reasons: It’s the concertmaster’s job to act as a bridge between musicians and the music director, so they might feel uncomfortable bringing differences of opinion with Vänskä to Keefe.
For his part, Vänskä, as a top manager in the organization, could be perceived as more inclined to side with the musicians rather than remain professionally neutral.
Outwardly, at least, any discomfort appears to have blown over.
“I haven’t felt any awkwardness,” Keefe said. “He’s here only 12 weeks a year; I’m here 28 weeks. When we are here together, we don’t bring anything inappropriate to rehearsal.”
Balancing candor, tact
The position of concertmaster with a symphony orchestra has its tricky moments. Because she’s working with many musicians on a spectrum of talent and experience to equal her own, she must project leadership while keeping diplomacy always at the fore.
“Orchestras on stage are a complicated organism,” Fleezanis said. “If you say anything to suggest you have an upper hand, it’s the kiss of death that eliminates objectivity.”
Displaying the frankness for which she is known, Keefe said that area is where she has learned the most.
“Knowing when not to say something can be even more important than knowing when to speak up,” Keefe said. “I say what I think, especially when I feel quite strongly, and I’ve had to learn to develop a filter.”
Orchestra violist Sam Bergman has known Keefe since her early teens, when he was her counselor at a music camp.
“What you see with her is very much what you get,” he said. “It was clear from a young age she was a serious musician who knew what she wanted.”
As for most of her experience being in chamber music, Bergman said, “Knowing how to work with an orchestra is important, but the musicianship is more so — to be someone who is able to really shape the sounds of a string section.”
Keefe’s next solo spotlight with the orchestra will come at the end of May, when she’ll perform Brahms’ Violin Concerto.
Bergman chairs the musicians’ members committee, the group that hears grievances and makes sure the contract is followed. He said of the Keefe/Vänskä marriage: “I’m sure they have their challenges, as all couples who work side by side do, but it hasn’t been an issue.”
A duet debut
Vänskä, who began his musical career as a clarinetist, has performed several times in a chamber setting with Keefe, such as the Beethoven Septet they played in January in Orchestra Hall’s intimate atrium.
On Sunday, at Zion Lutheran Church in Anoka, the couple will premiere a duet as romantic as they come — written for them as a wedding gift by Vänskä’s friend and countryman, Finnish composer Kalevi Aho.
On a recent visit to the couple’s Minneapolis riverfront loft with a stunning view of the Stone Arch Bridge, there was no apparent evidence that they’d only recently moved in.
“I like to organize,” Keefe said, as if she were confessing a sin. “I even do it for my friends. I was out of town last weekend, so Osmo had peace and quiet.”
Her husband gave her a bemused side-eye.
“She likes to plan,” he said. “I like to relax.”
A coq au vin was marinating in the refrigerator. Their reconstruction project — marked by plenty of open spaces, natural wood and stone, clean Scandinavian lines, a giant flat-screen TV for his hockey games and her girls’ nights in — was finished, and they’d invited the designer and builders over for a celebratory dinner. (Both of them like to cook, but he prefers to use a recipe only as an initial suggestion, then take off on his own flight of fancy.)
“Our tastes are so much the same,” she said. “We only disagreed on one small thing. I wanted square knobs on the bar cabinet and he wanted round.”
They wound up with the square ones.
“He said he could live with that,” she said as they both laughed. “We’re both very decisive. We make fun of each other because we’ve got two leaders in the household.”