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'The deepest sincerity leads to happiness' - Holly Mulcahy on Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto

Samuel Thompson

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Published: March 6, 2015 at 9:36 PM [UTC]

Violinist Holly Mulcahy is a person who approaches every facet of her life with intention and sincerity. Now in her second season as concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony, Ms. Mulcahy is acting in truly interesting ways to engage both her musical colleagues and her musical community. “I’m grateful to be in a position where I can connect people, and when I took this position I did it with the intention of being a true and human presence in my community,” she said in a telephone conversation.

Holly Mulcahy
Holly Mulcahy, violin. Photo: Bo Huang

“Since being in Chattanooga, I have done things like inviting both orchestra members and audience members to talk after concerts. People have responded in such a beautiful way: orchestra members come and talk about how they performed during the concert, and audience members have come and talked about what they liked about those performances. These group discussions help us all see that there is an intertwined network of people who love the product from all angles, and they also lend to a feeling of community ownership of an entity.”

Thoughtfully, Holly shared her reasons for acting in ways that seem unprecedented in the world of classical music. “Our time as performers in classical music is limited unless we go and fight for it – but we have to remember that the audience has to be loved as much as we love the music. We need an active and passionate audience, and we have to remember that we have to cultivate them as much as we cultivate our skills.” This philosophy is reflected in the way that Ms. Mulcahy relates to her colleagues as well: “There are people playing the Chattanooga Symphony who made Carnegie Hall debuts and some who’ve retired here from bigger jobs. One of the violinists is a former student of David Oistrakh – everyone adds to this orchestra, and the quality is just outstanding!”

Ms. Mulcahy’s dynamism and desire to connect is also reflected in NeoClassical, a blog in which she shares thoughts about her new community and its openness to new works and people, the classical music industry, and her own sense of adventure – that leading to her inspiring a Chattanooga bartender to create a cocktail named "The Awakening" in honor of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, which Holly will perform with the Chattanooga Symphony on March 12, 2015.

“Several months ago, during a post-concert cocktail gathering with members of my orchestra, audience, board, and staff, I began talking with one of the bartenders and wondered aloud if he thought he could capture the essence of a violin concerto in a cocktail,” she said. “My goal was to offer the cocktail as a device to explain, entice, and invite people to listen to a newer violin work with an open mind and heart.”

This adventuresome spirit is the perfect one with which performers and audiences can experience Jennifer Higdon’s captivating concerto, which was written for and premiered by violinist Hilary Hahn. Written in three movements (“1726”, “Chaconni”, and” Fly Forward”), this Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto is also the ideal vehicle with which Ms. Mulcahy continues to integrate her desire to help a community continue embracing itself.

“This concerto was chosen for many reasons, one of which being that Jennifer’s family is from this area, and orchestras have a sense of pride and ownership regarding local members and composers. The piece is amazing – it’s so reflective of her personality, you know that this is HER concerto.”

Holly is also keenly aware of the challenges inherent with performing modern music. “The human race doesn’t always want it safe. With new concerti, a quality work like this pushes an edge – you don’t know how it’s going to end, but you know that you’re going to have a pretty good ride. The wonder of new works is the music can definitely result in everyone involved experiencing emotions that we like, yet in different ways than when we hear standard works.”

“One of the many things I really like about Jennifer is that her music comes from a very sincere place, and does all of what I mentioned. She also helps musicians and orchestras – a very vocal advocate for the arts. That makes her approachable, and in the big picture she helps keep the industry alive.”

Indeed, Ms. Higdon has become an incredibly well-recognized force in the music industry. Her "blue cathedral," a two-movement sonic adventure for orchestra, has become one of America’s most performed contemporary orchestral works, with more than 500 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000. The Violin Concerto, however, since being premiered by Hilary Hahn, is currently only in the repertoire of four contemporary violinists, those being Ms. Hahn, recent Montreal International Competition winner Benjamin Beilman, Naha Greenholtz (concertmaster of the Quad-Cities Symphony) - and Holly Mulcahy.

While having spent several months learning the concerto (“My neighbors have listened to every facet of this concerto. They have been lovely to accept the major 7ths being pounded out on a regular basis!”), Holly’s admiration for the work had deepened. “With any composer who writes sincerely, performances and audience reactions are going to be deeply personal - you can tell when a composer is writing in a personal level. It’s a unique sound, and there is such a great chance that the sincerity of her music is going to touch people.”

Ms. Mulcahy has received many accolades from people in the industry for her approach to embracing a community, and that is reflected in her views of the Chattanooga. “This place is an oasis of sorts – a mini-Chicago! There’s a huge cultural area with galleries, sculptures, and such and incredible theatre! There’s a group of audiences for everything and a healthy appreciation for everything.”

“It’s a very pride-filled city. Chattanooga is filled with proud people, but there’s an intelligence behind it that which creates something larger. You can live a lot of places in the world, but when you step off a plane or drive into Chattanooga you feel that the people who have created this place love life. You can’t help but feel alive - when you’re surrounded by life, you live better and you’re a better person.”

Violinist Holly Mulcahy performs Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with the Chattanooga Symphony on Thursday, March 12, 2015.

For more information on Ms. Mulcahy, please visit
For more on Ms. Higdon, please visit

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From Mendy Smith
Posted on March 8, 2015 at 2:15 AM
I miss my hometown. It has changed so much over the past 30 years. The rejuvenation in the downtown/river park area has been amazing and brought a new life to the city. I remember when downtown was a place you DID NOT go to unless you had to. Now it is the soul of the city again.

I'll have to go the symphony next time I'm in town. Last time I went was sometime in 1980-something.

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