Building a career as a classical musician has never been easy, but in some ways, the required skill set seems only to be increasing. In case it wasn’t already difficult enough to master one’s instrument, these days successful young musicians are often asked to possess something more elusive yet in its own way equally vital: curatorial vision.
This is what allows a recitalist or chamber group to create concerts with their own internal coherence and raison d’etre, programs that feel like more than a semi-arbitrary collection of works, programs that tell some kind of a story.
A compelling example was on view Thursday night at the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, where the violinist Robyn Bollinger presented a multimedia recital entitled “Ciaccona: The Bass of Time.” In it she did more than just perform dauntingly difficult works by Biber, Bach, Bartok, and Berio. She melded them into an evening-length exploration of the ciaccona as such — a Baroque dance form that has morphed over the course of centuries. Between the works, using projected visuals, a prerecorded script, and live commentary from the stage, she framed the evening as “the story of an idea.”
Audiences are clearly hungry for this kind of approach, and its seems especially fruitful for players at the beginning of their career. Bollinger only recently completed her studies at New England Conservatory, and she currently plays with local ensembles such as A Far Cry and the Chameleon Arts Ensemble. Yet her program proved enticing enough to interest the Gardner Museum and the adventurous Brooklyn venue National Sawdust, to draw a respectably sized audience on Thursday, and to earn favorable notice in The New York Times. If Bollinger had offered these exact same works clothed in the garments of a more conventional recital, it’s hard to imagine the concert attracting this type of notice.
All of this said, telling an effective story through a curated or theatrical concert presentation is not nearly as easy as it might seem. Even with a topic as rich as the ciaccona, there can be a strong tension between the goals of delivering information and creating a sensory context that honors — or, ideally, amplifies — the music’s poetic resonance. In this case, Bollinger’s prerecorded material, with jaunty forays into music history, biographic anecdotes from the lives of the composers, and a perky narration, seemed to strive for vivid pedagogy over poetry. Plenty of it would not have been out of place in a school setting or a pre-concert lecture. But that also made transitions between explanation and performance less seamless than they might have been.
Fortunately, it was in the moments when the screen went dark and bow met string that Thursday’s program really came alive. The ciaccona — or passacaglia, a term often used interchangeably — typically features variations over a repeating bass, and Bollinger chose her examples well. The Passacaglia of Heinrich Biber (1644-1702) is an antique work of haunting melancholy; Bach’s Ciaccona represents the spiritual pinnacle of the 18th-century violin; the first movement, “Tempo di Ciaccona,” from Bartok’s Solo Sonata is a tour de force of folk-inflected modernism; and Berio’s Sequenza VIII (from 1976) suggests some kind of wild interstellar voyage in sound.
In fact, what all four of these works seemed to share more obviously than any family resemblance of form is a tendency to push the violin itself toward the outer extremes of instrumental possibility. Throughout the night, Bollinger’s technique proved equal to every challenge, with playing that was poised, precise, and musical. It was in the Berio, however, that her performance seemed to catch fire, projecting both a sense of visceral commitment and a physical athleticism placed at the service of bold musical expression.
It was also refreshing to hear the Berio released from its new-music quarantine and encouraged to frolic freely with three centuries of older violin music. Which brings us to one more advantage to this approach to programming: If audiences buy into the idea of the journey, they will trust a player’s itinerary and simply come along, as this evening aptly demonstrated, for the pleasure of the ride.
ROBYN BOLLINGER, violin
At Gardner Museum, May 3Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.