Concertmaster and violinist Erin Keefe ’98 may not like practicing the violin, but she’s one of the leading chamber musicians of her generation
“I hate practicing. I really hate it.” This is not what I was expecting to hear from Erin Keefe ’98, who laughs when she says it. As concertmaster for the venerable Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, the violinist leads upwards of 120 concerts a year, is a regular guest of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic, has won a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and a Pro Musicis International Award, and has played on, in her own estimation, “between 30 and 40” recordings. Has she always hated practicing? She has! Even during high school, although she has always loved playing with other people, which she did at Williston under Deb Sherr, who directed the music program during Keefe’s time there. Sherr was also her advisor and chamber music coach. “She’s amazing,” Keefe says simply.
Back then, while her classmates were talking about safety schools and reach schools, Keefe applied to three conservatories, including her “dream school,” the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was thrilled to get in: “They have the lowest percentage rate of acceptance of any school in the country. It’s, like, 3 or 4 percent. And it’s free!” After Curtis, Keefe went on to Juilliard and was playing chamber music at Lincoln Center when she got hired away to Minnesota in 2011.
Was she young to get that job? She was, but this fact is not of special interest to her. And the Minnesota Orchestra is itself plenty old, having offered its inaugural performance on November 5, 1903 (for historical context, that’s just before the Wright brothers flew their first plane). Keefe’s violin is pretty old itself: a Nicolo Gagliano from 1732 (the year Benjamin Franklin started writing Poor Richard’s Almanack). Keefe is also unusual for being a female concertmaster. There are one or two in the top 15 orchestras, says Keefe, but again, “it’s not really on my radar as an issue.” She is also, as she puts it, “married to the maestro”: Osmo Vänskä, who directs her orchestra. “This is not a normal situation! But he’s humble,” she says, explaining the easy way they work together. “He’s Finnish. He’s not one of those egomaniacs. At home we listen to jazz.”
This quality of Keefe’s—a kind of rational, unflappable, analytical way of moving through the world—is, she thinks, what makes her a good violin player. But it’s the emotion she doesn’t express in words that might make her a great one. “In high school I was more self-conscious. I felt like everyone was judging me—and they probably were. But even though I’m not a very outwardly emotional person, you have to be willing to show your emotions through music,” she says. And then she adds, as if this might not be clear from her dazzling success, “I can do that now.”