Soloist Alexi Kenney gives us the low down on playing the role of conductor in the first half of the upcoming FOUR SEASONS concerts, his Bay Area roots (and favorite eats), and the story behind his new body art.
Your last performance in person with the California Symphony was for the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 January 2018, and you featured in our virtual season finale in May 2020. Can you tell us a little about what you’ve been up to and where you’re based these days?
I’m currently living in New York City, although finding myself on the road a lot these days as we emerge from pandemic stasis.
As was the case for most musicians, most of my concerts were cancelled this past year, and I’m thrilled and thankful that many have been rescheduled and are happening this season! I can’t tell you what a joy it is for me to return to the California Symphony after all this time, and especially to be revisiting one of my favorite pieces, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
You and California Symphony Music Director Donato Cabrera have an extensive history together. You were Concertmaster in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra when he was music director of the ensemble. What do you remember of that time?
The SFSYO is still one of the best orchestras I’ve ever played in, for so many reasons. It’s where I was first exposed to many great pieces of orchestral music, we had rehearsals in Davies Hall every single week, were able to attend SF Symphony concerts for free, and the camaraderie of the other musicians led to explosively fun music-making.
Another thing I so appreciate about the Youth Orchestra is that they don’t shy away from programming anything other places might deem ‘too difficult’ for kids. I’ll never forget my first concert with them, playing Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet, which totally blew my mind. Looking back, having a world-class artist like Donato to conduct and mentor us every week was a true luxury, and it’s been amazing to continue our relationship into my adulthood.
You’re from the Bay Area, correct? What is it like to come back to the Bay Area and perform as a featured soloist? Are there any spots, restaurants, bars, hikes, etc. you miss?
I’m from Palo Alto originally and the bay is still bae! I feel like I’m home immediately when I’ve landed at SFO, and can barely wait to get out to my favorite cafes, restaurants, and farmers markets.
I’m unashamedly food-obsessed, and always looking for great spots to eat and drink around the bay. Some of my favorites are the Indian Chetinaddi food at Aapakadai in Sunnyvale, coffee at The Coffee Movement in SF, cocktails at True Laurel, and a pizza and/or breakfast sandwich from Tartine Manufactory (with a country loaf to go).
You’re performing Walker’s Lyric for Strings and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and for both pieces, you will be leading the orchestra. Can you talk a little about how this experience differs for you compared with your usual role as soloist?
The complexity of the role of a conductor was something I never quite realized until I was thrust into a situation of having to lead Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (and no conductor) a few years ago. As a player, I find what the conductor does a fascinating balancing act—how do you lift up, inspire, and gently guide a group of people into a cohesive interpretation without forcing them against their will?
A piece such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is not so much a violin concerto as it is a large-scale piece of chamber music: I’m reacting to the principal cellist and concertmaster just as much as they are reacting to me. Therefore, this piece is the perfect vehicle for everyone to get involved in the creation of a unique interpretation. And Walker’s Lyric is an expansion of a movement from his string quartet, so it’s fitting to perform it without a conductor.
We noticed you have some new ink! Is there any special significance to your tattoos that you are willing to share?
I love animals, and my body art is a sort of collection of some of my favorites. There are a bunch of different birds, a cheetah, and a fox, as well as a all-seeing eye, just in case…
I think tattoos are a beautiful fusion of art and self-expression, and honestly they’re such a part of me at this point that I tend to forget they’re there most of the time!
Alexi Kenney leads Vivaldi’s iconic masterpiece at the California Symphony’s FOUR SEASONS concert, November 6th and 7th at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $44-$74 ($20 for students 25 and under), available online or through the Lesher Center Box Office at 925.280.2490.