In July, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra announced ROBYN BOLLINGER as its next Concertmaster (Katherine Tuck Chair) to commence with the 2022-2023 season. She will be one of six new musicians in the DSO this fall, joining Principal Bassoon Conrad Cornelison (Byron and Dorothy Gerson Chair), violinists Elizabeth Furuta and Daniel Kim, bass trombone Adam Rainey, and flute fellow Shantanique Moore. We sat down with Robyn ahead of her appointment to discuss all things music, her love of the violin, what she is looking forward to in Detroit, and what it means to be the youngest female concertmaster in the United States.
A native of Philadelphia, Robyn grew up in a classical music household, with her dad a bass trombonist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and her mom, Gerry, an educator and violinist in the Philly Pops. Growing up backstage, she went to her first rehearsal at just two weeks old and at age two, took interest in playing the viola herself. “My mom got to go out at night and wear a long black dress and play the viola, so I wanted to go out at night and wear a long black dress and play viola,” she said.
Robyn’s parents gifted her a violin ahead of her fourth birthday. The idea was that she would start with a smaller instrument and then size-up to viola, but that change never came. “I always enjoyed practicing. I loved a challenge, figuring things out, and improving. The violin quickly became my identity,” she said.
She began violin lessons at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, and in fifth grade, began homeschooling to allow for more time to practice. Her teacher was Kimberly Fisher, Principal Second Violin of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who was a major influence at the time. Robyn made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut at age 12, and has since performed regularly as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician across the United States.
She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees with academic honors from the New England Conservatory in Boston and went on to become a faculty member at the conservatory’s preparatory school, as well as Brandeis University in the Boston area, where she has lived for the last 12 years.
A lover of violin repertoire, Robyn is also celebrated for her series of solo multimedia performance projects. She received a prestigious Fellowship from the Lenore Annenberg Arts Fellowship Fund for CIACCONA: The Bass of Time, an examination of the history and legacy of Bach’s famed chaconne for solo violin. Furthermore, she was recognized with an Entrepreneurial Musicianship Grant from the New England Conservatory for her Project Paganini featuring the twenty-four Caprices of Paganini. Most recently, she was awarded a historic Early- Career Musician Fellowship from Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, D.C. to research and prepare her next multimedia project, Encore! Just One More, which is slated to debut in a future season.
Creating a cohesive narrative around music with historic images, animation, voiceover narration, and live remarks, the multimedia projects give a compact history of context on the music’s relevance and importance, in unique venues and performance spaces. Through them, Robyn is interested in channeling an empathic process.
“ Empathy is an essential part of interpretation. I want to understand not only the construction, but also what the composer was thinking—what do they want me to do here? Why was this music important in this time? ”
She cites Bach's Ciaccona from Partita No. 2 in D minor as a poignant reference for this connection. It is believed the piece was written by Bach in memory of his first wife after she passed away. “There’s no hard proof for that, but loss is so intrinsic in the music,” she said. “This piece was my grandfather’s favorite, and he requested that I play it at his memorial service. The experience forever changed that music for me. Part of the project is that I invite people to remember their own loss and that this music is universal. Whether it’s Bach’s loss, my loss, or your loss—we can all be in that moment together—and that’s something special that music can do.”
Robyn is keen to maintain her sense of connection and relationships as she continues in her new role. As Concertmaster, she plays a large part in tuning the orchestra before concerts. “During tuning, I’m usually looking around, making eye contact, and smiling at people to wish them good luck. When I’ve done that with other orchestras, I sometimes get weird looks, but in Detroit, everybody smiles back.”
Ahead of her move to Detroit, Robyn had an appreciation for the DSO. She grew up listening to DSO recordings and was familiar with the orchestra’s strong reputation for programming contemporary music. She was also aware that the DSO has had two previous female concertmasters in Yoonshin Song (2012–2019) and Emmanuelle Boisvert (1989–2011). “I’m joining a long line of strong female leadership—not just from the concertmaster chair—and I’m really privileged to carry that on,” she said.
The significance of Robyn’s status as the youngest female concertmaster in the United States is not lost on her: “This is a huge honor and an incredible responsibility. There are still relatively few female concertmasters in the classical music industry and I’m proud to carry the torch. I hope to be a role model, not only for my colleagues, but also for young people who may see part of themselves in my story.”
In developing that legacy, she is excited to embrace and evolve the DSO sound with her colleagues, Music Director Jader Bignamini and new Assistant Conductor (Phillip and Lauren Fisher Community Ambassador) Na’Zir McFadden, a fellow Philadelphia native.
“I’m interested in the content of sound—is it deep, is it colorful? The only way to talk about sound is in metaphor, but sound is incredibly inspiring,” she said. “I look forward to working with Jader and learning more about his color palette. He’s not afraid to ask for details, and that makes for a much more refined and specific sound. In rehearsals we have limited time, and it can be tempting to gloss over things, but he’s not interested in glossing. I love that though, because when you roll up your sleeves and work, you get a better product.”
She continued, “Jader and I make a good team because of our investment in relationships, which makes for a more united experience. With some conductors, it can feel like the orchestra is just going through the motions or following directions, but with Jader, it feels like we’re all in it together.”
Robyn is also focused on settling into her new city. She and her husband, Dane, have moved to a home with a practice room above the garage and a fenced in back yard for their dog, Schroeder, an appreciated feature coming from a Boston apartment. She is enthusiastic about embracing Detroit’s arts and culture scene, from grabbing a pastry at Midtown favorite Warda Patisserie, to exploring the work of Detroit-born fashion designer Tracy Reese. “People speak about how much energy there is in this city, and I’m really passionate about being part of its continued growth,” she said.
“As Concertmaster, I’m the designated delegate to the conductor, and I also hope to be a liaison between the orchestra and the community. Everything I’ve said about getting to know the orchestra absolutely applies to the city, because I do see that as part of my role. Before I do anything, I need to know the history, values, and culture of where I am. I’m excited to go to restaurants, schools, and other cultural institutions to understand the soul of Detroit and learn how I can use my role to strengthen the DSO’s relationship to our city.”
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