Alexi Kenney takes a daring leap from “Shifting Ground”

February 24, 2023 at 11:08 am

By Stephanie Oestreich

Alexi Kenney performed his “Shifting Ground” program of Bach and moderns on Wednesday at Pickman Hall in Cambridge.

Violinist Alexi Kenney is showing us a possible future of music with Shifting Ground, his program pairing Bach solo sonatas from the 18th Century and contemporary works by Steve Reich, Georges Enescu and Du Yun, among others. 

A reference to ground bass, the low-end motifs in Baroque that set up variations, Shifting Ground creates an exchange between eras that is coherent artistically but defies easy categorization. Two new pieces were composed expressly for this project, and two more are by Baroque-era composers not named Bach.

Kenney brought the program to the Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall at Bard College in Cambridge on Wednesday night, presented by the Celebrity Series. In making his case for salient connections between individual pieces composed centuries apart — and for Bach’s enduring influence — he also demonstrated admirable bow control and technical brilliance without ever sounding mechanical.

Shifting Ground consists of of five sections, and some of the contemporary pieces played on Wednesday contained recordings, amplification and electronic decoration. But Kenney’s solo violin work was always the centerpiece, and through his playing this graduate of nearby New England Conservatory created an intimate and mesmerizing atmosphere.

In front a lighted blue backdrop, Kenney opened the first section — or act — with the Adagio from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, and he played in true baroque style, without vibrato. The contemporary counterpart was Enescu’s “Le Ménétrier” (“Country Fiddler”), from 1940’s Impressions d’enfance, written in memory of the composer’s first teacher. The Enescu work mixes jazzy, bird-like chirping with glissandi and Bach-style double-stops before a set of trills leads into a slow, melancholic passage — almost a tango. The next, more aggressive double-stops feed into a faster tremolo and ricochet before ending with a pizzicato flourish.

Up next — but still grouped into the first section —  was Bach’s Allemande from Violin Partita in D minor, with Kenney employing filigreed piano dynamics in the fast passages. Two contemporary pieces followed. In the first, Paul Wiancko’s own Allemande, from the cellist’s X Suite for Solo Violin, Kenney played unusual double-stops that climbed in pitch and culminated in arpeggios across all strings. Piano dynamics, pizzicati and flageolets completed this texturally rich and colorful piece.

The first section concluded with Du’s under a tree, an udatta for violin and tape (2016) — opening with a recorded choir that sounded like Buddhist monks chanting. Kenney joined in with tremolo made all the more dramatic by him shaking not just his the bow, but also his violin. The ensuing melody and wild glissandi tracked the chant without quite mirroring it, and then morphed into a melody resembling waves of swarming bees. A sitar-like passage gave way to dramatic arpeggios and flageolets before thinning out towards the end of this first section.

“The Violinist,” written for violin and electronics by Puerto Rico-born multi-instrumentalist Angélica Negrón, followed. It was the first of the two works commissioned by Kenney for Shifting Ground, and the only one positioned in the program not directly alongside a Bach piece, but as a standalone section — act two, as it were, in Kenney’s five-act journey. 

In “The Violinist,” a recorded female voice spoke dreamily about violin playing, accompanied by Kenney’s glissandi and tremolo on an amplified violin. The audible electronic feedback was probably intended. Combined with echo and percussive Caribbean rhythms, the contemplative piece created the impression of a record with scratches before recorded applause abruptly stopped the music.

Act three opened with Bach’s Allemande and Double from Partita No. 1. In animated fashion, Kenney assayed the punctuated but melodious piece, creating created a magnetism that was perpetuated in Reich’s Violin Phase for live-looped violin (1967).

With the violin amplified, Reich’s characteristically rhythmic, repetitives equencing created a meditative air. Interestingly, the rhythm between recorded and live violin shifted, passing through a canon-like phase of asynchrony before aligning again. This mesmerizing piece was an audience favorite.

Bach’s Grave from Sonata No. 2 opened the fourth section with dignified but playful arpeggios, and was paired with one Baroque piece — Alia Fantasia from Nicola Matteis — and the other commission: Hikari by New Zealander Salina Fisher.

Although Matteis was a Bach contemporary, his piece sounded pre-baroque, its fast arpeggios articulated by Kenney with technical brilliance and an emphasis on the underlying ground bass. In Fisher’s Hikari, Kenney created an Asiatic feel, evoking the composer’s Japanese heritage and fascination for the natural world through flageolets and arpeggios framed by fast, accented and melodious passages.

Bach’s Largo from Sonata No. 3 in C Major tenderly commenced the fifth and final act. Its contemporary companion was Elegy (Muir Glacier 1889-2009) by Matthew Burtner (2017), for which Kenney played overtone-rich, repeating passages with simple sounds, flautando and flageolets accompanied by recorded raindrops.

The Anonymous Nitida Stella, from 1600, resembled an Irish folk song in the style of Bach, and Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 provided a dramatic and royal finish to the evening. The finale’s double-stops were well intonated, and the fast sections and arpeggios in the Chaconne had a dramatic choreography, with tonal density and varying dynamics.

It was almost surprising how well Bach fits with all these modern pieces. This brave experimental performance provided a glimpse of how to successfully bridge traditional and modern music. 

Celebrity Series continues with Soundscapes of India featuring Sandeep Das and Suhail Yusuf Khan with Boston City Singers, 3pm Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge.

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