American violinist Robyn Bollinger made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut at age twelve. She came to national attention on the radio through her 2014 residency on PRI’s “Performance Today” and several appearances on NPR’s “From the Top.” In 2016, she was a recipient of a prestigious Fellowship from the Annenberg Arts Fellowship Fund.
We talked with Bollinger, who rejoins us for VIRTUOSO VIBRATIONS as part of our Second Saturdays @ California Symphony series. She’ll be playing two works written specifically for her by her friend and former California Symphony Composer-in-Residence Katherine Balch.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where did you grow up, and how did you choose this path to becoming a violin star?
I grew up outside Philadelphia. I actually didn’t want to play the violin when I was little – I wanted to play the viola!
Both my parents are musicians – my father plays bass trombone in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and my mother plays viola. As a small child I saw my mother go out at night in long black dresses to play concerts, and I wanted a long black dress too. So I started asking to play the viola when I was two, but my parents thought I was too little. Finally when I was four they let me start on the violin, with the idea that when I got a bit bigger I could switch to viola. I never switched!
You’ve received numerous awards, among them an Entrepreneurial Musicianship Grant from New England Conservatory for your ground-breaking Project Paganini. Can you tell us more?
Project Paganini was my first multimedia recital project. I studied with Soovin Kim as a teenager, right when Soovin had just released his CD of all 24 Paganini Caprices. Those caprices are often viewed as technical studies, just an excuse to show off – but Soovin taught them to me as real music, each its own charming vignette of character and melody. When I got to NEC [New England Conservatory of Music], I wanted to convince my friends that Paganini was artistically valid apart from all the pyrotechnics, and I also wanted to challenge myself – there are few violinists who take on the complete set of caprices.
So, I created a whole program around these 24 Caprices, which involved a ton of research, recording a script and gathering historical images to make Paganini’s story and music come alive. The show was a big hit! In fact, it was the success of Project Paganini that led me create my next multimedia project, CIACCONA: The Bass of Time, which later became my debut CD and DVD.
Here’s the trailer for the project, from Junior year of college, Spring 2012.
Two Songs for Robyn was written specifically for you. What’s it like to work with your friend, composer Katherine Balch?
Katie and I talk a lot and we usually know what the other is working on, so it isn’t generally a surprise when Katie sends me something – but it is always exciting and an honor! We live in such a rich and interconnected musical community, so I’m always touched when Katie turns to me with music.
Sometimes she’ll ask about a specific technical problem or she’ll ask for a recording of a specific sound, and other times she’ll just send me a completed draft. It definitely feels like a collaborative process – but as a performer working with a composer, my role is to support and do my best to achieve or translate what she has in mind. The fact that we know each other so well doesn’t change that, it just makes it easier and more fun!
Bollinger performs Sequenza VIII by Berio on her debut CD, CIACCONA—The Bass of Time.
What do you like to do when you’re not playing or practicing?
When I’m not practicing, I love to cook! I tend to gravitate toward Asian flavors. I’ve been trying to perfect my pho recipe and ramen eggs, too. I’m also a bit of an indoor plant enthusiast – I travel too much to make having a pet truly feasible, so I make do with lots of greenery that I love to fuss over.
What have you been doing these last few months?
I’ve been home in Brookline, MA, right outside Boston, since the pandemic started. I’ve been using this time to go deeper into some solo violin repertoire that I don’t know as well, including several Bach Sonatas and Partitas and an Ysaÿe Sonata, and now the full Bartók Sonata. I’ve continued teaching virtually, and I’m doing more and more streaming and recording around Boston. At the beginning of the pandemic I recorded a lot of videos for hospitals and retirement centers around the country, and I’m preparing to organize a project around that for the holidays as well.
On a personal note, my fiancé and I recently got a puppy! We’ve named him Schroeder after the piano-playing Peanuts character. He likes Brie, obedience training, and lying in the sun, and he does not like Bartók.
Robyn Bollinger performs Riverwalk and Apartment Sounds by former Composer-in-Residence Katherine Balch at VIRTUOSO VIBRATIONS, the second concert in the all new virtual Second Saturdays @ California Symphony series, free to watch online and on Walnut Creek TV.