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 joins the California Symphony’s 2018/19 season finale EPIC BRUCKNER, playing a violin concerto that was written specifically for her by 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 2, but my parents thought I was too little. Finally when I was 4 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!
It is a huge honor and frankly an amazing advantage to be able to customize this concerto along the way.”—Bollinger on her collaboration with composer Katherine Balch
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.
Artifacts was written specifically for you. What’s it been like to work on this concerto with your friend, composer Katherine Balch? And how does it relate to Paganini, if at all?
Katie has been an absolutely dream collaborator! We’ve been talking about a hypothetical violin concerto for years, so it has been tremendously exciting to see this come to fruition. Katie has been keeping me updated at every step of her writing process, and luckily since we’re such close friends I’m already pretty familiar with her working style and her compositional voice. (I’ve performed her solo violin piece Iaspis quite a lot.). It is a huge honor and frankly an amazing advantage to be able to customize this concerto along the way. As Katie has sent me drafts, I have been able to say things like, “This spot is easy – want to add something flashy?” and she’s been so great about extending my boundaries and possibilities in a very practical way.
Robyn and I have been friends since our undergraduate years at New England Conservatory, and I’ve been wanting to write her a piece for a long time,” says Balch. “I wanted to take the repertoire Robyn and I love and have shared conversations over, and turn it into something not only in my own voice, but also into something I hope elevates and highlights the incredible personality Robyn brings to her performative practice.”
This piece also feels very personal because it’s based on some of the pillars of the solo violin repertoire, and those works are some of my signature repertoire. The first movement is based on Berio’s Sequenza VIII, which I recorded on my debut album.The second movement is based on Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 (Katie attended my Project Paganini concert and was inspired all those years ago!). The third and fourth movements are based on works by Ysaÿe and Sciarrino respectively, and I would argue that both of those composers are directly descended from Paganini – so in some ways, this concerto brings me full circle.
I have been able to say things like, “This spot is easy – want to add something flashy?” and she [Balch] has been so great about extending my boundaries and possibilities in a very practical way.”
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. A few months ago Katie came and visited me to work on an early draft of the concerto, and we had a great time making pork dumplings from scratch. 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. And, saving the best for last – I recently got engaged, so I’m deep into wedding planning! In fact, Katie is going to be my co-Maid of Honor! She and I are looking forward to wedding dress shopping soon!
This is your first time performing with the California Symphony. Any plans to sightsee?
It is my first time with the Symphony and in the area. Dane (my fiancé) and I were hoping to do some wine-tasting afterwards, but he couldn’t get the time off work! If anyone has any suggestions, in case I have some free time…
I just want to tell our audience how incredibly excited I am to get to work with my best friend on this amazing piece of art. I am so looking forward to performing with the Symphony.”
Robyn Bollinger performs Artifacts by Composer-in-Residence Katherine Balch at the California Symphony’s May 5 season finale EPIC BRUCKNER at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $42-$72 ($20 for students 25 and under), available online or through the Lesher Center Box Office at 925.934.7469.