Erin Keefe jumped in at the deep end when she won the position of Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster in 2011. It is a big job in the best of times, but the orchestra soon plunged into an ugly labor dispute that resulted in a 16-month lockout of the musicians.
Almost two and a half years after the end of the conflict, the Minnesota Orchestra is a changed organization. And Keefe feels she's hitting her stride.
During rehearsals with visiting Israeli conductor Asher Fisch, it often fell to Concertmaster Keefe to ask for clarifications.
"It doesn't sound homogenous enough!" Fisch said.
"Shall we take it off before the pizzicato?" Keefe asked. "So that it's not as destructive?"
"Yes, please, let's do that," Fisch agreed, and lifted his baton to continue the rehearsal.
Keefe described her role as "sort of a go-between between the conductor and the orchestra."
Sitting in her dressing room after a two-hour rehearsal, Keefe said a lot of what she does is listen. Sometimes she listens to the whole orchestra, sometimes just to certain sections. She does this while playing.
"It's easy, in a way, to come out of your own part if you know it well enough, and to listen to everything around you," she said. "And that's really probably my most important role as the concertmaster ... to have that ability to sort of just keep your ears open to everything that's going on in the whole entire orchestra."
Educated at The Juilliard School and Curtis Institute of Music, Keefe focused first on chamber music. She hadn't considered an orchestral career, and she didn't set out to be a concertmaster.
"I think many people know when they are in school that is something they really want to do," she said. "And I was sort all over the place. I didn't really have a clear goal in my head of what I wanted to do later in my career ... I think that helped me."
She ended up trying many things, including solo performances and teaching. Then one day she met outgoing Minnesota Orchestra Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis at a music festival. Fleezanis encouraged Keefe to audition for the job.
"I decided ... it would just be good experience just to take an audition," she said. "And look what happened!"
Keefe won the chair in 2011, but then things went sour when musicians and management went head-to-head in an ugly contract dispute. "The lockout obviously was a horrible thing in this orchestra's history," she said. "But at the same time it brought the musicians so much together that I was able to be here and play all the locked-out concerts. I got to know people differently than I would have if it was purely just the everyday orchestra schedule and situation." Things are greatly changed since the lockout. The orchestra triumphantly toured Cuba, and then musicians signed another contract.
Keefe is preparing to appear as soloist in three concerts at Orchestra Hall this weekend, when she will play the Brahms Violin Concerto. Her relationship with Music Director Osmo Vanska is unusual in the orchestral world: A couple of years ago, they married.
"He doesn't usually get to make this many comments to me," Keefe said with a laugh during rehearsal. "But I allowed it today. It's for my own good."
They get to spend remarkably little time together. Keefe rattled off some of their April schedule:
"I was doing a Chamber Society of Lincoln Center tour," she said. "So I played 12 concerts all over the United States and Canada. And Osmo came with me for the rehearsal process in New York for about five days. Then he went off to Geneva, and then we met in China, for five days. I celebrated my birthday there. And then I came home to work with the orchestra and he went to India. And then he came home."
They worked through the entire piece, note by note at times. Vanska said he feels very lucky to be able to work with Keefe like this. Many top performers just can't work with a spouse, but Keefe has a special ability to listen and collaborate.
"That's why she is such a great concertmaster," he said. "Because she can always play with the highest quality, but she always knows when she has to give space and modify her playing so that everybody is finally playing together."
The Brahms Violin Concerto is technically and musically challenging. It takes practice and preparation. But Keefe said the sense of accomplishment at doing it well makes it worthwhile.
"You have all the stress of the preparation and the rehearsals and so many hours in the practice room alone," she said. "And then when you hit that last note, it's this amazing feeling, and then you get this big rush, and then you stay up all night because you have so much energy."
That's energy she can use to prepare for the next concert.
Correction (May 24, 2016): An earlier version of this story misnamed the Curtis Institute of Music. The story has been updated.