Violinist Alexi Kenney

Rach & Bartok

The Louisville Orchestra
Christian Reif, guest conductor
Alexi Kenney, guest violin

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

While we certainly enjoy having Teddy Abrams on the podium, it is a treat to have a guest now and then, and as a surprise to us, we got two very exciting up-and-comers in the world of music: conductor Christian Reif and violinist Alexi Kenney. 

Mr. Reif is a draw for his ability to bring out the most intimate and engaging sides of the music that he conducts, as we witnessed at Whitney Hall on Saturday evening. Having recently served as Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, he is forging a reputation for creativity and talent within the symphonic and contemporary music scene. Similarly, violinist Alexi Kenney is building his career on the heels of being a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2016. He has since graced stages alongside musical giants such as Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, Orchestra de Chambre de Lausanne, and a turn on the famed Carnegie Hall. 

The evening began with a piece that was new to me, Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan’s Hum away, hum away, strings! As it begins, we are awakened by a set of brass that at first sounds almost strangled, but perhaps it was simply a chosen quickening of notes, in what sounded like 1/64th time. As the short piece progressed, I thought that I had heard some essence of Mozart’s Magic Flute, later confirmed by our guest conductor. As the title notes, the strings are prominent throughout the piece, Žebeljan does give recognition of the support from the whole of the orchestra. I truly enjoyed Hum away, and after reading Ms. Žebeljan’s biography I will be seeking out more of her works. She had received commissions from dozens of orchestras and music festivals from all over the world, but, unfortunately, her star burned out early as she passed away in 2020 at the young age of 54.

Next, we move to Hungary and the music of Béla Bartók and his Violin Concerto No. 2 with solo violin, featuring guest Alexi Kenney. The concerto in three movements begins with a dreamy harp that lays the theme for our soloist and the other strings that present a pleasing and rhythmic pulse to the first movement, Allegro non troppo. But just as you are in a lull of calm, the brass erupts in an alarming tone and volume that leads to the second movement, Andante tranquillo. Within this selection of themes and variations, our soloist and orchestra truly bring about a feel of mystery and lullabies, quite ethereal really. Kenney embraces the tonality and abilities of the violin and stretches the instrument to its limits. And then, in a flash, with a roll of thunder, Rondo: Allegro molto, brings everything together into a fit of folk dance and revelry. 

“S dnyom rozhdeniya Sergei Rachmaninoff!” In celebration of the great composer’s 150th birthday, complete with cupcakes in the lobby (what a fun treat, by the way), the Louisville Orchestra shared with its audience one of his less-known works, Symphony No. 3 in A minor (Op. 44). While this work lies in the middle of his catalog, it is perhaps the most Russian of all of his pieces. Lento – Allegro moderato features second violins to start the building of the melody and theme, to which the surrounding strings echo and keep the momentum going. Soon we go into the lush and danceable Adagio ma non troppo, which is filled with exciting woods, winds, and strings and to bring a little excitement, nuanced percussion that adds a bit of mystery and intrigue. In the third movement, Allegro, all I could think about was this part of a movie soundtrack. The entire movement has a romantic feel and makes you want to look out into the horizon, reminisce, and embrace the one you love. Now, as lovey-dovey as this sounds, I did hear a small disconnect of tempo in the violin to what Reif was conducting and what others in the orchestra were performing. Fortunately, it was a quick fix and everyone was back on track. 

Throughout the evening I could not help but watch Reif and his conducting style, most notably allowing the soloist to do what he knows to do with little prompting and he made sure that every final note was given its value to its absolute entirety and beyond, till that very last vibration or blast of breath can be heard. That is a talent in and of itself and something that I appreciate for the love of the music and the craft.

A very entertaining visit to lesser-known pieces from great composers of note who fought oppressive politics and survived in spite of it all.

Bravi Tutti!

Rach & Bartok

April 7, 2023

Louisville Orchestra
Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.