Erin Keefe bows a mean violin. But last September, when the 31-year-old Massachusetts native was named concertmaster for the Minnesota Orchestra—ending an international search that stretched longer than two years—it was her eyes that got her the job. And not in a creepy way. “The way she used her eyes to communicate was very good,” said principal violist Tom Turner. “We could tell she had pretty big antennae.” Prior to joining the orchestra, Keefe, who studied at both Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, spent eight years as a freelance violinist, playing with chamber groups all over the world—including significant stints with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The concertmaster gig is her first full-time job.
What exactly is a concertmaster? What are you doing up there?
The concertmaster is the face of the orchestra. I lead the first-violin section, but I’m responsible for the rest of the orchestra, as well. I have to determine what the conductor wants, and then I have to communicate that in some kind of nonverbal way to the rest of the musicians.
I’m picturing a lot of miming.
Well, I have to show everyone what we’re doing. It could be a signal with my bow. It could be eye contact. After the conductor, I’m the second leader up there.
What made you choose the violin?
When I was five, my parents decided that I should play the piano. So they bought one—and it didn’t fit in the door of our house. Then I was going to take lessons from a lady down the street—and she had a stroke. So it just seemed like it was not meant to be, me playing the piano. Finally, I had to choose either the violin or the cello. And I didn’t want to lug a cello around.
Do you listen exclusively to classical music?
Honestly, I listen to news radio more than anything. A lot of MPR. If I have people over, I’ll put on some Ella Fitzgerald. But I’m really not a huge music listener, which sounds so terrible. It’s like background. I never hear the words.
Do you have an iPod?
I have an iPod. But it’s all stuff for the season. I think in the next two weeks, I have to play 20 pieces, including two of the biggest concertmaster solos in the whole entire repertoire: Strauss’s A Hero’s Life and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
Are you freaked out?
I don’t really get stressed. I feel like I always know the music as well as I can. This isn’t life or death.
How paranoid do you get about your fingers?
My husband [cellist Andrey Tchekmazov] is very paranoid because once, a couple of years ago, I sliced through my fingernail with a bread knife. So now he chops everything when we cook. I am officially prohibited from handling cutlery.
Who’s the most overrated composer?
Oh, I could get in trouble for this one. People really judge you on this stuff. Honestly, I love all the major composers: Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach.
Be for real.
They’re totally my favorites! They are each very much justified.
Give it to us straight: are Minnesotans too generous with our standing ovations?
Audiences in general are too generous. It’s not that it’s disappointing, because I really appreciate it. It’s honest. It also depends on the piece. Like [Ravel’s] Boléro, which, no matter how badly you play, you will get a standing ovation. Even in New York. That piece is just so audience-pleasing, it’s incredible.
Gregory J. Scott is the staff writer for Minnesota Monthly.