These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Jul 1, 2023

In Conversation: Violinist Alexi Kenney

Violinist Alexi Kenney performs Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with conductor Joshua Weilerstein and the San Francisco Symphony, July 6 and 7

(at Frost Amphitheater).

The work you are playing here, Sibelius’s violin concerto, is a piece you’ve performed with a number of orchestras, including the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra in a 2016 concert. How has your perspective on the piece changed over the years?

The Sibelius Concerto is a piece that has been my companion for many pivotal moments in my life: it was the piece that I played when I auditioned for colleges, and it was the first concerto I ever played with a professional orchestra. Over time, my perspective on the piece has evolved from seeing it as the hugely difficult showpiece for the violin it was at age 16 to one of the most psychologically complex and profound works in the violin repertoire. Of the major violin concertos, I would say this piece is singular in the way Sibelius creates drama, pitting the soloist against the orchestra in ways that feel at once elemental and extremely human. It’s this sense of contrast—of subtlety versus bombast, man versus nature, orchestra versus soloist—that makes this piece such a powerful experience to listen to. And, as a player, it's a playground of experimentation and searching for new colors and depth. I'm also so happy to be reuniting with Josh Weilerstein for these concerts, after having played the Sibelius together a little over a year ago. I studied this concerto with Josh's father Donald Weilerstein, who was my wonderful violin teacher at the New England Conservatory, so there’s a special connection there.

You’re originally from the Bay Area and as a student you played with the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra. How do you think this shaped your development as an artist?

The YO was a completely life-changing experience for me. Unlike some other youth orchestras, the YO treated us like real professionals, right down to the rigorous entrance auditions, sectionals with musicians from the San Francisco Symphony, and weekly rehearsals on stage at Davies Hall. I forged many friendships there that I still keep to this day—not to mention the great number of people from the YO who ended up pursuing music as a career, and who I still run into in my travels. We were also offered tickets to the weekend Symphony concerts whenever we wanted them, which I took advantage of almost every week. Hearing and meeting some legendary soloists and getting to know all that orchestral repertoire played by a world class orchestra in my backyard was a huge inspiration for me to pursue a life in music. It’s a total dream come true to return to the Davies Symphony Hall stage to play with the orchestra I grew up with.

What are some of your interests outside of music and how do they influence your creativity and artistic expression?

I love many different forms of art: sculpture, painting, architecture, and dance, to name a few. I’ve always thought of playing music as a multisensory tactile act, and the thought of putting brush to canvas or sculpting a vessel out of clay inspires me to envision my own medium in that way. There is texture, color, and density in music, and I find that when I’m able to access that more holistic way of thinking, my imagination is free to run wild and I'm able to be that much more inspired. I am most moved by art that feels truly embodied and full of spirit, and so I'm always seeking to be more and more aware of and intentional with my musical feelings in order to achieve ultimate freedom of possibility and enjoyment on stage.

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