Holly Nelson


Hometown: Willington, CT
Schools attended: Mannes College, Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College CUNY
Appearances: Binghamton Philharmonic; Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra, Switzerland; Tibor Varga Festival, Switzerland; Institute For Contemporary Performance, NYC; Franco American Vocal Academy, Salzburg; Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute; American Bach Soloists Academy, San Francisco; Meadowmount School of Music, Adirondacks
Musical origins: As a young kid, I was unenthusiastic about studying the violin, an instrument chosen for me by my parents. I even threw my tiny violin out of my 2nd story bedroom window when I was 6, hoping it would break (it didn’t) and I wouldn’t have to practice. That all changed when I went on a trip with some violinists from my youth symphony to watch Sarah Chang rehearse the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with the Hartford Symphony. She must have been in her early 20s and was rocking skintight black leather pants, all while playing brilliantly and conducting herself in an exceptionally confident, professional way. I thought she was just the most badass thing ever. Around that same time, I found a record of Yehudi Menuhin jamming on Indian ragas with Ravi Shankar and suddenly decided violin was cool.
What inspired you to apply to TŌN? I found the application on “Musical Chairs,” a website that lists professional orchestra auditions. Receiving a stipend while spending my time learning, practicing, and performing sounded like a dream. I was especially attracted by the ability to finally earn a Master’s—something I had been putting off for years because I didn’t want to sink myself deep into student debt. With a full scholarship, I can return to school without worrying about how I will pay for it. It’s also beautiful around here, if you haven’t noticed!
Favorite pieces to play: Debussy’s Violin Sonata, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 in E-minor, Ravel’s Tzigane, and Corelli’s Op. 5 Sonatas with baroque ornaments!
Favorite obscure piece: Antheil’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and a showpiece for violin and piano called Seashell by Charles Engel. It’s perhaps not truly obscure, but not performed very often anymore.
Favorite composer fact: Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver and plumber to support his family even after attaining some level of fame and success as a composer. Glass told The Guardian in a 2001 interview, “While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”
Favorite Musical Memory: Beating Stacy Phillips, whose fiddle CDs I had grown up listening to, in the New England Fiddle Competition’s ‘Trick and Fancy’ division when I was 11 by hula-hooping while performing “The Irish Washerwoman” and “Devil’s Dream.” There was an audience of about 10,000 people in Bushnell Park, Hartford, CT that day. After shaking my hand in congratulations, he jokingly said to my parents, “I should have known—never compete against small children or cute animals.”
Which composer would have had the best social media: I have a feeling Beethoven on Twitter would have been a blowhard who always ended up with his foot in his mouth and a lot of infuriated readers, just like a lot of opinionated and outspoken musicians today!
Favorite fact about your instrument: I haven’t managed to lose it while traveling (yet)!
The thing most people don’t know about classical music is: A Mahler, Prokofiev, or Shostakovich symphony can drive harder than any metal band.
Favorite non-classical music: The Punch Brothers, Of Montreal, Kishi Bashi, Bonobo, Funkadelic, NY Gypsy All-Stars, E.S.T., Imogen Heap, West African kora music, Bluegrass—especially fiddler Aubrey Haney, and Nat King Cole
Musical guilty pleasures: Mötley Crüe, Dance Dance Revolution music for sentimental value, Weird Al Yankovic just because, and pieces for kazoo orchestra
Best album to have on repeat: Brahms Symphonies by the Berlin Philharmoniker with Simon Rattle conducting.
What recording would you take to a desert island: I honestly would prefer silence if I was stranded on a desert island. That way, I would be able to focus on devising an escape plan, since listening to music is usually too absorbing for me to concentrate on anything else simultaneously. Failing that, I would want silence while coming to terms with my fate.
Proudest accomplishment: Conquering my fear and skiing a double diamond trail in the Sierra Nevadas this past spring
Favorite non-musical activity: Cooking, skiing, kayaking, studying languages, traveling, painting and drawing, hiking, and nature watching
Last books read: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara
Favorite sculpture: My father is a sculptor and I love an older piece of his called The Rogue: a larger-than life Minotaur nude sprawled on the ground, its powerful arms and legs bound with cotton rope. The piece is carved out of wood, with a head made from clunky rusted metal found objects. The figure strains against its bonds, both pathetic and defiant. The fact that the head is made of an angular, industrial scrap of metal is the most compelling aspect of the sculpture for me. It lends the piece both expressive possibility and universality. The imagination of the viewer fills in the face, creating emotion and attaching identity, conjuring the Minotaur into endless metaphors. The sculpture used to scare the hell out of me as a kid, but now I love how confrontational and visceral it is.
Piece of advice for a young classical musician: Learn viola 😛
Time travel destination: The premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913 or watching the formation of the Alps (extremely sped up, of course.)