The Minnesota Orchestra has chosen a gifted soloist and chamber musician as its new concertmaster. Erin Keefe assumes the position when the orchestra opens its season next weekend. She succeeds Jorja Fleezanis, who left in 2009 after 20 years to become professor of music at Indiana University.
Keefe, 31, was a violinist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center during the 2010-11 season. Previous to that, she was a member of the Chamber Music Society Two program. She performs regularly with the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society and Boston Chamber Music Society.
The concertmaster, along with the conductor, is the face of the orchestra to the public. Fleezanis was well-known in the Twin Cities community for her advocacy of new music and her ease in public settings.
The role serves as a liaison between musicians and conductor -- the first person to see the score and gauge what the conductor wants. As first violinist, she makes important decisions that determine how the music should be phrased, and she is first choice for solos.
Keefe's musical talents are unquestioned, but she has not held a position of leadership in a major symphony orchestra.
"I am really convinced that we have found the right person," said music director Osmo Vänskä, who was in Finland on Thursday. "We need a great player and then we would like to see her become a leader onstage and offstage, too."
She played with the SPCO
Keefe is no stranger to the Twin Cities. She and her husband, cellist Andrey Tchekmazov, already live in St. Paul. In 2001, Keefe was a substitute with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on a European tour. She also spent last season as a guest second violin with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
A native of Northampton, Mass., Keefe studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute. She said she became interested in the Minnesota Orchestra job last summer after playing chamber music with Fleezanis.
"I've known Jorja for four years, and she said she could recommend me for an audition," Keefe said.
Keefe played with the orchestra in May, a concert that included Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Tom Turner, principal violist and a member of the search committee, said that Keefe's awareness during that concert impressed him and other players.
"The way she used her eyes to communicate was very good and we could tell she had pretty big antenna," Turner said.
Keefe's relative youth did not concern Turner. Fleezanis was 37 when she came to Minnesota in 1989 after several years as associate concertmaster at San Francisco. The Pittsburgh Symphony announced the appointment of Noah Bendix-Balgley, 27, in July. And in Dallas, 24-year-old Nathan Olson was named co-concertmaster last February.
Turner said it was a relief to have the position filled, more than two years after Fleezanis departed.
"It does feel like it's been forever," he said. "But it's not that unusual because an orchestra is a big constituency to satisfy."
Vänskä said the stakes involved for top orchestras can necessitate long searches.
Violinist Sarah Kwak served as acting concertmaster during the vacancy.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299