A Weekend with Katherine and Robyn

What do thimbles have to do with Katherine Balch’s next composition for the California Symphony? Read on for an update on the concerto she is writing for violinist Robyn Bollinger that is set to premiere at the 2018–19 season closer.

Left: Robyn Bollinger. Right: Katherine Balch with Robyn and thimble.

By California Symphony Young American Composer-in-Residence Katherine Balch. Balch will visit Walnut Creek in January for a reading workshop of her new piece-in-development.


Hi! Katherine here, California Symphony’s composer-in-residence. Happy fall! I spent the last few days of October in Boston, where my friend and collaborator Robyn Bollinger lives. Robyn will premiere my violin concerto, Artifacts, this May with the California Symphony.

Cheers! Kickoff to a weekend of playing and composing

We spent the weekend reading through and rehearsing some music, finalizing the workshop score for my upcoming read-through with the CS in January, and, most importantly, catching up on some much-needed girl time. I also presented my music to the composition students at Brandeis and Boston University.

Workshopping Day 1: In the third movement, I had written a very high, percussive pizzicati [when string players pluck the strings] figure in the violin sections. This was too hard, in fact, physically painful for Robyn’s fingers, because the strings of the violin become increasingly taut further up the fingerboard. So, we set out to find a similar sound that did not cause so much stress. After experimenting with several plectrum materials, we discovered that one can use a thimble to tap the string very high on the finger board. The resultant sound is exactly the delicate, high, percussive plucking sound I was looking for. So, I ordered 100 thimbles online. This concerto comes with accessories!

Homemade dumplings! Robyn and I have enjoyed cooking together since our undergraduate days as students at New England Conservatory.

Workshopping Day 2: Robyn played through a draft of one of the cadenzas in the concerto [when the soloist plays without any orchestral accompaniment], and we found solutions for some moments that were awkwardly written for the instrument. This concerto will be in four or five continuous movements which all feature the violin very heavily, but there will be three short cadenzas, spread out evenly throughout the 20-minute piece, in which Robyn plays without any orchestral accompaniment, showing different sides of her expressive personality. A weekend full of playing and writing!

Workshopping Day 2

Katherine Balch’s Violin Concerto will premiere May 5, 2019 at the California Symphony season finale. Tickets and information at www.californiasymphony.org/epicbruckner