Musicians: Karen Bentley Pollick

In Classical MusicInterviewMusiciansNew Classical Music on September 28, 2011 at 5:58 pm

“I began piano lessons at age five and practiced on a Steinway that my father was restoring. Four years later I was handed my first violin at elementary school and received music lessons from the trombone teacher, who was the band director. I then took lessons from Heidi Yenney, who lived around the corner from my home in Palo Alto and was a member of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra. I soon entered into their training orchestra Super Strings and continued to work my way up in the ranks, playing string quartets with my violist sister Heather and other members of our youth orchestra. We had a competitive comraderie that provided many opportunities for performing solos, chamber music and orchestra, and coaching with visiting soloists and string quartets. I started teaching violin at 12 under the tutelage of my violin teacher Jenny Rudin and enjoyed developing the young talents within a structured community that encouraged lateral learning. I studied with Camilla Wicks in San Francisco when I turned 15 and was especially inspired by the accomplished Norwegian students that passed through her studio.”

Karen Bentley Pollick, another great violinist/violist, who, by the way also is an accomplished pianist (and even does them simultaneously as you’ll see) is a very strong fixture in contemporary music performances across the globe. While most of what she does is new music these days, she has also written her own cadenzas for Haydn and Mozart violin concertos in earlier years, and has also played in crossover situations with the likes of Dave Matthews, Evanescence, and even Barbra Streisand. In September of 2011 she’ll be performing the world premiere of a brand new work, the Piano Trio by Samuel Carl Adams, with TwoSense (Lisa Moore & Ashley Bathgate) in New York.

Karen gave us her thoughts on the new work. “Sam creates miniature jigs and elfin dances that shift rapidly from triple meters to quintuplet subdivisions. He cleverly utilizes unisons between violin and cello in the lilting triplet passages to delineate the structural pillars of the trio. Sam’s background as a jazz bassist and pianist is evident in his harmonic vocabulary that creates a kinetic and buoyant composition. The dynamism and intricacy of his writing evolves from motoric riffs into a Beethovenian fury in the piano texture.”

Karen also spoke about some of her most fascinating performances caught on tape. I asked her about my particular favorites:
Dan Tepfer‘s Solo Blues for Violin and Piano: “Dan studied astrophysics and is a leading jazz pianist of his generation. We met in Brno, Moravia where we were both performing at the American Spring Festival. When we met at the breakfast buffet on the first morning he told me about a piece that he had composed for the Carnegie Recital Hall debut of a violinist/pianist friend. When I returned to the US, I performed Solo Blues for the first time within two weeks. A year later we filmed the piece in my living room in Alabama. Learning this quirky and well-crafted composition required much repetitive drilling to isolate the different tasks that activate previously untapped regions of the brain. Perhaps it is similar to playing organ in terms of multitasking. Solo Blues is an ingenious piece in four contrasting sections that exploit an array of simultaneous activities and coordination.”

Phillip Ratliff‘s Vulcanalia for Violin and Percussion: “Vulcanalia is originally a musical score for five dancers from the Alabama Ballet, with choreography by Roger Van Fleteren depicting the love story between Vulcan and Aphrodite. We have performed it dozens of times al fresco at the base of a cast-iron statue of Vulcan overlooking the skyline of Birmingham, Alabama from Vulcan Park. Our audience was primarily comprised of children attending “Class On The Grass” to learn about the history of the steel industry in the Pittsburgh of the South. Phillip Ratliff is the composer of Vulcanalia as well as the Director of Education at Vulcan Park. He met individually with me and percussionist Graham Dalton to brainstorm motives and textures. During our first session, I rolled tape and sightread a few sketches that Phillip had written out, modifying and improvising on the kernels of ideas he suggested. I am fascinated with the parameters of the violin as a percussive instrument, especially when playing alongside a battery of percussion that includes a brake drum to simulate the sound of an anvil on a forge. I have been encouraging composers to integrate the chop that the Turtle Island String Quartet pioneered. Each composer I work with has devised their own version after I demonstrate the principles of the chop. Phillip took the chop to a new level by integrating pitched and non-pitched elements with chanting in Latin and adding ethereal vocals accompanied by harmonics. The next incarnation of Vulcanalia will be a violin concerto.”

Brian C. Moon‘s Duetto con Bobik for Violin and Electronics: “A stray Beagle/Bassett hound dog showed up on my doorstep in Alabama shortly after Hurricane Katrina during a drought and 105 degree weather. I revived him with food and water then noticed that he was hobbling about using only three of his legs. He arrived on the very same day that my longtime collaborator Ivan Sokolov arrived from Moscow to rehearse with me and cellist Dennis Parker from Louisiana. Sokolov [aka ‘Vanya’] stayed for 10 days, during which the dog remained on our front porch. The day before he returned to Moscow, I asked Vanya to name the dog, who has since been called Bobik, meaning Russian for ‘Fido’. Bobik became a vital part of my family for almost five years until we moved to Colorado in June, and he lasted only 48 hours at the high altitude, as his lungs had been weakened by pneumonia last November. We had a wonderful life together with Bobik filling the role of practice coach. He loved the violin and howled for the first 20 minutes of practicing every day! Perhaps he was awakening my primal nature through his howling and calibrated his song to A440. Our Duetto emerged when I was recording a violin/piano duo of Brian’s at my house, and as we were warming up Bobik was stalking a strange bug in a corner of the living room. He is a very expressive dog with a different greeting for every person and situation. Brian recorded the ‘growling at the bug’ sample, and the ‘joy of the tuning’ sample. I followed up with several subsequent sessions on my Sony PCM-D50 and shared them with Brian a month later. For example, every first Wednesday in Alabama the emergency sirens sound at 10:00 am. I opened the outside door ajar to incite Bobik into a plaintive song with the sirens. On another occasion when I began my practice session, he entered to assume a balletic pose in first position before vocalizing as a coyote baying at the moon. As he was tuned to A440, there was no need for pitch modification during the assembly of the entire piece using the iPhone application “I Am T-Pain”. In August, I performed our Duetto in a canyon at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, Colorado. It was wonderful to hear his voice resonating throughout the canyon and I realized then how deeply he had carved his way into my heart during our quality time together.”

Charles Norman Mason‘s METAMAN: “METAMAN is a collaboration between University of Miami composer Charles Norman Mason and video artist Sheri Wills from RISDI. Mason composed the music with electronics and midi violin, then presented the recording to Sheri to add a visual component. She included me as a live component within the visual field by filming directly onto my body clad in a flowing white outfit. I planned to wear my wedding garb, which inspired Sheri to include lace in the film to create a wedding dress that decorates my body as the imagery emanates from the floor to the top of the background. We filmed the world premiere at the Birmingham Museum of Art in March 2010, and were intrigued by the effect of the reflection of the imagery from the wall onto the floor. The visuals and the electronics are all synchronized. When I am performing METAMAN I avoid stealing a glance at the video that includes motion filmed from a moving train. The first time we did a dress rehearsal with the video, I noticed strobe light splashes of green and purple and realized the need to focus on the violin and music to avert vertigo.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Bargemusic concert that was scheduled for Thurs, Sept. 29th that Karen and TwoSense were supposed to perform at has been canceled. We will keep you informed about any updates of a rescheduled show.

Karen Bentley
Official website


September, 2011

Karen Bentley Pollick World-Class Violinist Lands

By Corey Colombin

Down a sleepy country road in Evergreen, a house is taking shape, destined to be the dream retirement abode for a hardworking man. A mandatory requirement for the architect is a state-of-the-art music room, a dream landing spot for his wife, Karen Bentley Pollick, an extremely busy world-class performer of the violin, viola, and hardangerfele (a Norwegian nine-stringed folk instrument).

The move to Evergreen won’t mark the official retirement for Karen, make no mistake. For many years to come, her quiet home will serve as a welcome resting spot between far-flung travels — a place to regroup, to practice, to teach, and to plot her next musical project.

Musical projects for Karen Bentley Pollick are varied, often employing composers, accompanying performers, and the collaborative efforts of fellow musicians. Sometimes a project culminates in the recording of a CD under her own label, Ariel Ventures, and at other times, a performance. Still other efforts will result in a benefit to uplift a cause.

Eager to share her gift through performing, Karen’s Evergreen debut is slated to be a recital with Russian pianist Ivan Sokolov on Saturday, November 5th at Church of the Hills. Ivan Sokolov is a world-class pianist and composer and a repeat collaborator with Pollick, and together, the music they make transforms a mere listening experience into a soul-stirring event.

“I’m embarking on a new chapter of my life in Evergreen,” Pollick shares, “with ears, eyes, and all other senses open to experience, create, and collaborate with artists, dancers, musicians, poets, young musicians, and any others who may cross my path. The possibilities for sharing and learning are especially kinetic at the high altitude, which fuels and inspires my daily preparations for the next iteration in my journey.”

Karen’s journey began at the tender age of five, when she was directed to study the piano. In elementary school in her hometown of Palo Alto, California, she was encouraged by a uniquely supportive musical program, which propelled her headlong into joining the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra. At age 12, she acted as an apprentice teacher to fellow students, all enrolled in a unique lateral learning program, which utilized a five-tier youth orchestra. Higher education found her at Indiana University, studying music on scholarship, and by her early 20s, right on schedule, she headed to New York City to pursue her musical dreams. There she settled in Greenwich Village and made her presence known as a freelance musician, where she auditioned and was promptly accepted into the performing circuit. Karen performed with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and countless other highly recognized orchestras. And along with her sister, an accomplished viola player, she is part of the proud alumni of the New York String Orchestra that performs annually at Carnegie Hall during the winter holidays.

Now, don’t allow the list of Karen Bentley Pollick’s accomplishments to mislead you into thinking that she limits herself to venues and compositions that prompt polite clapping in gloved hands from well-mannered audiences in formal wear. Not this violinist, whose sense of humor rivals her talent. Recently, Karen performed in Loveland at Sunrise Ranch in an outdoor festival. She dressed for the occasion (casually) and played for the folks at sunset. Her piece of choice: “Duetto con Bobik,” which means duet with the dog. The backstory is that her beagle was such a reliable howler that she could actually measure its pitch. The beagle showed up on her doorstep the same day that Ian Sokolov arrived from Moscow, which is how he came to be named Bobik (Bobik is to Russians what Fido is to Americans). Bobik demonstrated this howling, on-cue behavior in the middle of a recording session with Alabama composer Brian C. Moon, at which point he created a composition to accompany it and coined it “Duetto con Bobik.” Another tribute to this musical pooch is Karen’s rendition of Benedikt Brydern’s Bebop for Beagles, highly viewed on YouTube. I suppose it lends credence to Karen’s openness to all collaborators, since the beagle literally walked into her studio after being misplaced during a storm, was welcomed, adopted, and ultimately became a recording star.

Karen starts each day with Bach, who is her favorite composer. “I can’t live without Bach,” she says. And she does dabble in the classics of her formal training, but it’s in the innovative, avant-garde compositions where she truly shines. Karen strives for pieces that exude passion and depth of interpretation, and indeed, she has a knack for pairing with just that musician or composer who facilitates an energetic and transcending performance or recording.

On the differences between recording and live performance, Karen says, “There’s a synergy in a live performance that is difficult to replicate in the recording studio. As I perform, I can feel the audience acutely listening and having an experience en masse. Their collective energy propels me to reach higher and dig deeper in the music with more intensity. I usually invite a few special friends into the recording studio to sit in the booth to remind me that my focal point of projection extends beyond playing into the microphone.”

Karen’s favorite performance to date was at Stanford University. A group of New Guinea sculpture artists returned during a week of festivities to celebrate the unveiling of their work in a newly landscaped garden on campus. Four tribes were present, all who had toiled to create sculptures on-site. Karen organized a tribute performance to celebrate their accomplishment. During the performance, the people of the tribes danced under the stars and a full moon amid their beautiful sculptures, creating a magical evening that awakened all the senses.

And now that she’s put her lot in with our small town, Karen has future plans for all of the musical elements that mark her life. She enjoys working with dancers and hopes to work with Denver area ballet troupes. She loves working with youthful talent and so intends to teach both violin and viola, once her music room is complete. She will continue to travel far and wide for the many concerts she’s booked for, and she will continue to record under her Ariel Ventures label.

“Ariel Ventures is committed to capturing the essence of live performance of contemporary music through audio and video recording. There is an abundance of fantastic music generated by living composers, and we select a cross-section of the repertoire to record using criteria that include connectivity with the audience and performers, clever compositional devices, innovative and sonorous textures, and memorable themes and gestures that entice the listener into repeated hearings.”

Karen Bentley Pollick has accomplished so much, but like any tireless musician, composer, and performer, she, too, has a bucket list. She describes the item at the top. “Ivan Sokolov wrote a 45-minute piano quartet in three movements in 2010 that is a masterpiece of thematic development over a long timespan, with his harmonic and gestural fingerprints permeating the entire composition. My dream is to share his piano quartet next season with audiences in Colorado along with his seven-movement string trio from 2009 to culminate in our third recording together.”

As far as Karen Bentley Pollick’s career, there is much to see, hear, and follow. The best way to keep up with the details of her musical life is to check out her Web site,, which also links to her YouTube recordings. Also on Ms. Pollick’s Web site is a detailed listing of her performance schedule, upcoming events, and everything you need to know about CDs under her recording label, Ariel Ventures.

A world-class violinist has landed right here in Evergreen. Welcome, Karen Bentley Pollick. May your musical dreams take flight.