A Far Cry is thrilled to share the news that one of our violinists, Robyn Bollinger, has been awarded a two-year Arts Fellowship from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund. Robyn joins eight other young artists in receiving the award this year. (A New York Times article details the award here.) The Fellowship program reflects the late Leonore Annenberg’s lifelong commitment to the arts, her desire to provide opportunities for artistic growth, and her intention to strengthen American cultural life. Its goal is to help these individuals become successful so they may someday serve as leaders in their field and help others in the future.
Please join us in congratulating Robyn on this magnificent achievement, and keep reading for a blog post by Robyn about the project that her Fellowship will support.
Robyn, we are so proud of you!
Today, I’m the luckiest girl in the world, and not just because I play with a A Far Cry- although we can all agree, that’s a pretty good reason in and of itself, isn’t it?
No, today I’m the luckiest girl in the world because I’ve just received an Arts Fellowship from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund.
An Arts Fellowship from the Annenberg Fund comprises $50,000 a year, for up to two years, to be invested in young artists’ careers. Previous winners include dancer Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre, actor Jeremy Strong of “The Big Short,” singer Isabel Leonard, and violinist Tessa Lark, a former classmate at NEC and Guest Crier. I’m one of nine Fellows this year, and the line-up is impressive: a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Young Artists Program, a dancer with ABT, an actor/rapper, a visual artist, and other astounding actors and musicians. It is somewhat jarring to see my name in that list, but there it is- what an honor!
My two-year grant has been awarded to develop professional-quality videos of my multi-media performance project titled CIACCONA: The Bass of Time and to present the full program in a live debut event in New York City next year. I am of course slightly daunted by this prospect, but mostly I am enormously excited. This is truly the opportunity of a lifetime, and I fully intend to make the most of it.
So, what is a multi-media performance project, and why “CIACCONA?” Let me back up a bit.
I grew up backstage at the Philadelphia Orchestra, where my father plays bass trombone. I have been going to concerts for as long as I can remember, and even from a young age, the concert experience felt ritualized and stale to me; the relationship between the audience and the performers felt separated and cold, if present at all. As technology was becoming ever more pervasive throughout my adolescence, I began to wonder if there was a way to engage audiences using a more stimulating set of tools better suited for our hyper-connected present.
During these years I studied with virtuoso violinist Soovin Kim, who remains an important mentor to me to this day. Perhaps my most important lesson under his tutelage was to appreciate the power and importance of virtuosity. Just prior to beginning our studies together, Soovin released his critically acclaimed recording of the twenty-four Paganini Caprices. Paganini is often thought of as a throw-away composer, all flash and no substance. However, in the way Soovin performed the caprices, and in the way he taught them to me, the monstrous technical virtuosity demanded of the violin was in pure service of the music rather than a mere showcase of the performer. It quickly became my goal to one day perform all twenty-four Caprices myself.
New England Conservatory, which I attended from 2009 to 2015, became the ideal laboratory for uniting these two legacies of my childhood: a mission to revitalize the concert experience for the digital age, and my conviction in the inherent but under-appreciated virtue and beauty in Paganini’s music. In my third year at New England Conservatory, under the guidance of my teacher, Miriam Fried, former NEC President Tony Woodcock, and musicologist Rebecca Cypess, I created a multi-media performance project called Project Paganini, made possible through a grant from NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department. During the performance, I wove together my own live performances of the twenty-four Caprices with historical images of the composer and other pertinent figures, voiceover segments chronicling Paganini’s biography, and live monologues about what these pieces and Paganini’s story meant to me personally. The event was a huge success. The hall was standing-room only, and the program attracted attention not only throughout the Boston arts community, but on a national stage from Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music show, Performance Today.
With the success of Project Paganini, I knew I’d found a concert format worth developing. In the autumn of 2014, shortly after joining A Far Cry, I embarked on a second multi-media performance project, this one entitled CIACCONA: The Bass of Time. The goal of this project was to demystify Bach’s influential Ciaccona for solo violin and to trace the story and impact of the ciaccona form through history, from the Baroque Era to the present. Bach’s Ciaccona is one of my favorite pieces and for a variety of personal reasons is close to my heart. My project sought to make this music accessible to a wider audience by connecting listeners to the story of Bach, his predecessors, and his musical legacy. The program featured a similar format to Project Paganini: live performances of pillars of the solo violin repertoire with the Ciaccona serving as the focal point and centerpiece, projected images, voiceovers providing historical context for each composer and piece, along with spoken personal monologues. The response from my mentors, teachers, and peers was overwhelmingly positive. Six months later, on a 2015 summer cruise down the River Danube as a guest artist with Performance Today, I presented a portion of CIACCONA as a featured evening program. The impact was palpable. Over and over for the remainder of the cruise, members of the audience approached me, often in tears, to thank me and tell me that my music and my presentation was the highlight of their trip.
This Fellowship is an incredible opportunity to bring my vision for a revitalized concert experience to the national stage. I believe that if classical music as an industry is to compete with the movies, pop-music, television, the internet, and an ever-expanding universe of digital media and mobile apps, we must incorporate multimedia stimulusation into our performances. It should be made clear that I never intend to distract from the music; over the course of the presentation, no images or voiceovers will ever appear while I am playing, nor will I distribute a set of program notes. My performance format seeks to provide listeners with ample information and historical context using contemporary media while simultaneously encouraging them to approach the music on a personal level, giving them more to see and more to hear.
(Incidentally, though we haven’t gone the multimedia route yet, my pursuit of these goals directly overlap with the reasons that I love playing in A Far Cry; we are constantly going the extra mile to reach audiences, challenge listeners, welcome conversations, and establish relationships both within the music and between individuals to foster human connection.)
If you’re interested in following me on this journey, I hope you will visit my website at RobynBollingerViolin.com. If you’d like to see a clip of CIACCONA, you can check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwd7GO4j_qM
But don’t worry- I’m not going anywhere! I’m still very much a part of everything A Far Cry. Most of all right now, I’m excited for our upcoming set with Simone Dinnerstein. She will be joining A Far Cry for a special arrangement of Bach’s famous Goldberg Variations, a work she famously championed in her own New York debut recital and recording project. I know that our work with her and our conversations on Bach and music will prove fruitful and rewarding.
Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to my AFC family for all of their support, both musical and personal. I can’t imagine who I’d be without A Far Cry.