An Intimate Encounter with the Violin

by Catherine Womack

Season Finale of Soundings: New Music at the Nasher to feature Alexi Kenney

Buy Tickets

Violins and cellos are social instruments. We see them most often in quartets, busily chattering back and forth with one another, or as part of an orchestra, their bows bobbing up and down in unison. To spend time with one stringed instrument alone is an intimate experience. Hairs fly. Bows and fingers slap and scrape against string and wood. Pitches quiver.

Over eight years of Soundings: New Music at the Nasher, artistic director Seth Knopp has presented many thoughtfully constructed programs. One that stands out in my memory is a 2014 concert of solo cello music in which Alisa Weilerstein performed a pair of Bach suites alongside a selection of contemporary art music. The stylistic variety on display that evening highlighted the emotional range of the instrument. Weilerstein’s cello growled, moaned, wept, and sang. It was laid bare and exposed: cello as vulnerable muse.

For this season’s Soundings finale on May 3, Knopp gives us a chance to commune with the violin. This time the young, lithesome violinist Alexi Kenney is our guide. A rapidly rising star, his tone is clear, precise, and sensitive. He also happens to be a student of Alisa Weilerstein’s father, pedagogue and chamber musician Don Weilerstein. The program, once again, juxtaposes contemporary compositions with the music of Bach.

Pairing old and new is a winning formula. A great vintage jacket looks best with a new pair of designer jeans, and an antique rug is the perfect complement to hyper-modern furniture. Think back to multimedia artist Alex Israel’s 2015 Sightings exhibition at the Nasher. Israel’s brand-new, cotton candy-colored work Untitled (Flat) was positioned behind Rodin’s The Age of Bronze. The two pieces could not be more different in style or provenance, but together they were revelatory. Israel’s 21st-century Hollywood pose transformed Rodin’s statue, bringing its 19th-century contours into focus.

The contemporary pieces Kenney will perform on May 3 contrast and balance Bach’s virtuosic Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the centerpiece of which is the Chaconne in D minor.

Bach’s Chaconne is a wildly athletic set of variations on a sorrowful, poignant theme. Rapid-fire arpeggios and double stops abound until finally, at the end, we arrive on a simple D. Kaija Saariaho’s Frises (2011) is intended to follow the Chaconne. It picks up where Bach leaves off, on a solitary D. To counter Bach’s furious explorations of harmony, Saariaho gives us a D that whistles like wind in the forests of her native Finland.

Every 20th- and 21st-century piece on the program riffs off Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in its own way. Essa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen Verlernt (2002) is a more romantic take on the Chaconne. In Violin Phase (1967), Steve Reich’s propulsive, repeated patterns dance like a mid-century modern version of a baroque gigue. Iannis Xenakis’ Mikka (1971) reveals an alternative style of virtuosity in which a single, microtonal melodic line slips and slides around pitches like an erratic siren. At the center of all this will be Kenney’s violin. From Xenakis to Saariaho and back to Bach, the instrument’s most extreme  technical and emotional capacities will be explored. The violin is our muse this time, solitary and exposed. What will she tell us?

Alexi Kenney will perform at the Nasher on May 3, 2018. Tickets and more information can be found at

Soundings is supported by Charles and Jessie Price and Kay and Elliot Cattarulla, the Friends of Soundings, The City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, TACA, and the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University. Additional support provided by Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger. Media Partner: WRR 101.1 FM.

Nasher Sculpture Center
2001 Flora Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
Join Our Newsletter