Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe is married to a clarinetist. A couple of years ago, he was booked to play a woodwind-heavy program with his old orchestra in Turku, Finland. Concert organizers also approached Keefe, asking if she'd play along with the theme by performing Kurt Weill's Concerto for Violin and Woodwinds.
"I wasn't familiar with it," she says. "At that point, I hadn't even heard of it!" But she added the concerto to her repertoire and soon fell in love with its unique, quirky, spiky character. "It wasn't like anything I'd ever played before."
She decided she wanted to reprise the work in the States.
Lucky for Keefe and Minneapolis audiences, doing so wasn't a problem. Her clarinetist husband is none other than Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä, and when it came time to plan her annual concerto appearance, the Weill was fresh in both of their minds. Keefe has tackled a variety of violin warhorses over the course of her tenure "the Beethoven and the Brahms and a lot of the standard pieces" but this year she felt it was time to stray off the beaten path.
Weill can be an enigmatic figure in the concert hall. As Keefe points out, much of his career was spent writing for musical theater and Broadway. ("He wrote 'Mack the Knife'!") But before he found success with works like 1928's The Threepenny Opera, he was studying and composing concert music in Berlin amid the postwar Weimar Republic bustle. His Violin Concerto, written in spring 1924, hints at an emerging theatricality, making it, in Keefe's words, "an approachable piece."
It's a work full of surprises, down to its very structure. The middle movement is especially noteworthy, Keefe says. It's split into three parts, a trick that wouldn't be out of place in a Mahler symphony. The first, the Notturno, features a vigorous violin dancing against the tinkling notes of a xylophone. ("How often do you get to watch a xylophone play for five minutes?") The Notturno leads to a wild-eyed Cadenza with "a million trillion notes." And the movement ends with a Serenata containing a sweet, haunting melody for the solo violin.
The instrumentation, too, is unusual. Weill scored the concerto for winds, trumpet, two horns, percussion, timpani and four basses, which, along with the solo violin, are the only strings onstage. This instrumentation presents opportunities and obstacles. On one hand, performing a concerto with reduced forces can feel like playing chamber music, a role that Keefe is profoundly comfortable assuming. On the other, these instruments are loud, and it can take some work to find the right aural balance. (Keefe confesses to marking up the score after rehearsal.)
The instrumentation also provides an unexpected treat for audiences: Finally, we get a chance to watch the brass and woodwind players perform.
"Usually they're hidden visually behind all the strings," Keefe says. "Or as Osmo says, 'Strings, strings, strings.'"
Vänskä chose to pair the Weill with Mahler's First Symphony, Titan. Strikingly, Keefe sounds just as excited to tackle the symphony as she does her concerto.
"Mahler's close to the top of my list of favorite composers these days," she says. "Which is a good thing because of the recording project!" (The Minnesota Orchestra is recording a Mahler cycle for the BIS label.) "And his music is fun to play. That's not always the case with all the great composers."
Whether she's leading the strings through a fun-to-play Mahler passage or leading listeners off the beaten path with the million trillion notes of Weill, Keefe wears her enthusiasm for her art and her job on her sleeve. That enthusiasm is contagious.
Live broadcastHear the Minnesota Orchestra perform at 8 p.m. Friday on Classical MPR in a live broadcast hosted by Brian Newhouse.
Other performances this week are at 11 a.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.