Listening for the Sound: Alexander Kerr’s Lyrical, Emotional Approach to the Violin

Though he grew up in an era shaped by the lightning-fast precision and technical rigidity of classical superstars, violinist and concertmaster Alexander Kerr has always listened for the sound. The lyrical, heart-grabbing element of a performance that makes music meaningful to listeners from all backgrounds and experiences.

“I try to be vulnerable when practicing to understand what I feel; that is the feeling I transmit to the audience,” Kerr explains. “Music is such a fundamental part of our lives, and sparks an immediate emotional response. It takes a certain degree of abandon to do that. I hate missing notes or playing out of tune, but I also have to go for what is important.”

Vulnerability, abandon, and emotion lie at the core of Kerr’s performances. It won him the coveted position of concertmaster with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra when only in his mid-20s. It has led to collaborations with some of the beacons of the chamber music world, from Rostropovich to Joshua Bell, and to respected recordings on major labels.

Though Kerr’s mother is a pianist and music teacher, Kerr didn’t take to the hard-driving role of wunderkind. A rebellious young man, he pushed back against the discipline and expectations, to the point of getting kicked out of the renowned Meadowmount School of Music. Until one day, it dawned on him that he loved music, and loved playing for its own sake, not to satisfy anyone else. “In my late teens, I finally realized I was full of curiosity. That success wasn’t important,” recalls Kerr. “I saw I didn’t have to do it to win someone else’s approval. I took ownership of my playing.”

Once Kerr set off on his chosen path, he pursued it doggedly–though he found himself drawn to the type of playing that transcended the intense focus on speed and precision that absorbed many of his fellow high-level music students. “I listened a lot to Michael Rabin,” says Kerr. “That’s the kind of playing I knew I wanted to do, because it hits the emotional center every time, whether I agree with it or not. I get a visceral, human reaction every time I listen to his recordings. And his sound, the beauty of his sound! You can feel the suffering, the pain, the happiness.” Kerr pours these emotions into his performances of work that runs the gamut, from Brahms to Bartok and Stravinsky. He has recorded works by Dvorak, Shostakovich, and Dutch composer Julius Röntgen.

Kerr found teachers who nurtured rather than crushed that inborn independence and his growing feel for his own compelling sound. Aaron Rosand encouraged Kerr, harshly at first, to find his own voice as a player. He lashed out at the young Kerr, who came into a lesson after weeks of frustration, imitating one of Rosand’s recorded performances note for note. “He yelled, ‘I don’t want regurgitated me, I want you!’” Kerr remembers. “So the next lesson I came back, ready to give him me. I played whatever the hell I wanted, and he told me that that was our first real lesson together.”

After his work with Rosand, Kerr continued to follow the sound, learning from the great performers and conductors with whom he worked. Though he butted heads with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the acclaimed conductor conveyed the beauty of understanding the composers’ context; the history and performance practice behind the composition. This approach became integral to Kerr’s own interpretations.

“This approach is becoming increasingly important, and Harnoncourt was the forefather of it,” notes Kerr. “At some rehearsals, we would barely play a note. But I would understand how Dvorak framed a piece. We would listen for the viola, for its rhythmic gesture, what we were trying to hook into. He taught me that you’re not just playing your part, but being aware of everything around you. You are an integral part of things, not just a fellow traveler.”

Kerr learned this lesson well when he got one of his career’s largest breaks, an invitation to join the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as Concertmaster. He was 26. When the call from Amsterdam came, Kerr swore it was a practical joke, until he understood what opportunity awaited. He had been concertmaster in several other ensembles, but was taken aback by some of the challenges of his new position. “I was this upstart who was now in a leading position with one of the world’s best orchestras,” recounts Kerr. “In the U.S., everyone tries to be a star, but in Holland, you are the same as everyone else and are not allowed to forget it. I learned to lead by example, and to appreciate a variety of different performance approaches.”

After a sojourn in Amsterdam, Kerr returned to the U.S. to teach at The Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where he got another surprise call related to the Concertgebouw. It was his famous predecessor, Jaap van Zweden, inviting Kerr to become concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where he was now conductor. “Jaap knew we had similar experience and that we would click,” Kerr says. “He knew I could lead well, both as a musician and a person.”

On both counts, Kerr reaches deep, defying the demands of mere virtuosity, to achieve the kind of moments artists live for, when no one leaves the concert hall unchanged. One of the most memorable for Kerr: A performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8. Kerr joined violinist Maxim Vengerov, violist Yuri Bashmet, and aging legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

“Rehearsals were intense but not going well,” Kerr recalls. “Things weren’t gelling. Suddenly at the concert, from the first moment the cello entered, I just knew. It was going to be one of those performances you never forget. At the end, there was a long moment of silence, and then the entire audience stood up. We all started crying. We were oblivious to the audience. We felt the emotional depth of what we had just accomplished.”