‘So many colors’

Detroit Symphony Orchestra brings tango fantasia to Wharton


The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is riding a strong spring breeze into next Thursday’s (May 2) visit to the Wharton Center.

It’s the orchestra’s first trip to East Lansing since it named dynamic Italian opera specialist Jader Bignamini as music director in 2020 and violinist Robyn Bollinger as concertmaster in 2022.

At 47, Bignamini is among the youngest maestros of major orchestras in the United States and three decades younger than his illustrious predecessor, Leonard Slatkin.

Now in her second season with the orchestra, Bollinger, born in 1991, was the youngest female concertmaster in the U.S. when she got the job.

“I feel lucky to be here,” she said. “It’s a very supportive community of musicians, a very supportive audience. It’s an exciting time for the Detroit Symphony.”

To freshen the spring breeze, along with assorted warm waftings from the tropics, Bollinger will play the solo part in a lively concerto by Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla, “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” (not to be confused with the luxury hotel).

Much of the music’s energy and complexity springs from a bold and supple fusion of musical worlds.

“Piazzolla had something to prove,” Bollinger said. “He grew up with tango but studied classical music in France, so his music has the richness of his heritage and traditions, and it also has the incredible structure of classical music — so many colors.”

Although there’s no flat-out improvisation, the music leaves a “freedom to embellish” that Bollinger is eager to exploit.

“The fun thing is that I’m listening to a lot of tango and jazz,” she said. “I’m practicing experimenting and improvising, which is not something I usually do as a classical musician, so I know what works and can choose specific colors, even if it’s not written down.”

The chance to “decorate” the music with unique flourishes and grace notes is another link between Piazzolla and Baroque masters he loved, along with jazz masters like Duke Ellington.

“You can trace the lineage,” Bollinger said. “This is Piazzolla’s take on Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons,’ and there are a bunch of quotes from Vivaldi embedded in this piece. I’m taking that Baroque improvisation and making it both jazz and tango.”

Bignamini has extensive opera experience, which Bollinger said heightens his skill in working with soloists.

“Jader really absorbs the soloist in his study and work,” she said. “It makes him so much more able to anticipate what a soloist might do and bring the orchestra along.”

Bignamini is the resident conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano and has conducted grand operas at the world’s greatest opera halls, including Milan’s La Scala, the Vienna State Opera and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut in 2017 with Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

“Opera conducting is incredibly complex and nuanced,” Bollinger said. “You have to keep track of so many things at once.”

Opera conductors also work in close tandem with singers, and that skill will come in handy next week at Wharton.

The Detroit gig is Bignamini’s first as music director of a symphony orchestra. In 2018, he filled in for an ailing Slatkin, and the maestro and musicians immediately hit it off. Bignamini, a native of Crema, Italy, called it “amore a prima vista,” or “love at first sight.”

“Jader is really pushing the orchestra, and that’s exciting,” Bollinger said. “He’s not afraid to work, and he’s asking us for more.”

Bollinger feels a strong rapport with the maestro, but her interactions with the entire orchestra are fascinating to follow. She loves the close-knit feel of chamber music and strives to achieve the same intimacy when playing with a full symphony.

“That’s something we work on all the time,” she said. “Of course, as concertmaster, I’m communicating with Jader, but I’m also constantly communicating with the other string principals, the winds and the timpani to sort of bring everyone into the fold.”

Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons” is almost chamber music anyway, scored for strings alone.

“He was a tango performer and composer,” Bollinger explained. “He performed with a quintet, and this piece is modeled after the quintet, so there are constantly solos for the principal strings. There’s a huge bass part that gives that tango backbeat, and a huge cello cadenza. It’s fun because it’s particularly collaborative.”

In addition to her new gig in Detroit, Bollinger appears as a guest concertmaster with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and other groups and regularly plays in chamber ensembles.

When it comes to discussing her musical upbringing, Bollinger would rather talk about Bach or Piazzolla. There was no thunderbolt from the blue or flaming inscription directing her to dedicate her life to music.

“I’m really boring,” she said. “It never occurred to me to do anything else. This is just what our household did.”

Both of her parents are professional musicians. She started playing at age 4 and made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut at age 12.

But her voice quickens at the memory of watching the Olympics as a youngster.

“There was gymnastics in the summer and figure skating in the winter,” she recalled. “That was incredibly motivating for me to see as a child — especially the female figure skaters, beautiful women who are so strong and have this wonderful combination of technique and precision and emotion and artistry. I would watch the figure skaters and then go practice, hoping for the violin Olympics someday.”

The DSO schedule is so packed this year that she doesn’t have to worry about overthinking or overpreparing for the Wharton performance.

“I’ve been playing the Piazzolla piece for a couple of months now. I know it really well, so my challenge now is to do it differently,” she said. “It’s easy to just bring the same thing back, but I’m trying to look at it differently. That keeps it fresh, keeps me honest and hopefully will make it fun.”

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

May 2

7:30 p.m.

Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall

750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing


(517) 432-2000



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