Violinist Karen Bentley Pollick sits out the pandemic in Mexican pueblo

“I wouldn’t rather be anywhere on the planet than right where I am”

By Peter Alexander July 7 at 2:50 p.m.

Violinist Karen Bentley Pollick has been in San Pancho, a Mexican pueblo of about 2,500 people, since the pandemic hit.

Save your sympathy for someone else, though. She has food, she has the internet, she has her husband and her dog with her in San Pancho, and she loves the pueblo. “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere on the planet than right where I am,” she says.

Pollick in her home in San Pancho, Mexico

Pollick lived several years in Evergreen, and has performed chamber music and solo recitals in Boulder. She played principal second violin and was a featured artist at Mahlerfest and was poised to do the same this year until the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the festival—and an entire tour that she had planned for the spring. 

“I was due to fly to San Jose (Calif.) April 8, and to spend my father’s 86th birthday with him,” she says. She had rehearsals and performances with the Paul Dresher Ensemble—an innovative contemporary performance group—in San Francisco, and work in New York before Mahlerfest, which would have included a house concert and chamber music in addition to the main orchestra concert. Then she would have returned to the West coast for a project with composers from around the world at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

Tour or no tour, Pollick has no trouble  filling her time. She always has projects and music to practice. “My life’s not very much different—the only difference is that I’m not getting on planes and going anywhere,” she says. Besides, “I love spending time alone. 

“During those first weeks [in San Pancho], I watched every night the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts—that was my coping,” she says. “Then after one week of opera I dove frenetically into what I’m doing.” Because she enjoys working with composers and meets many of then on her travels, “what I’m doing” is often contemporary, creative and cutting edge.

Poillick and flutist Klaus Liebetanz performing John Kreitler’s Conversations Beyond the Stars on her Webcast concert in May

One of the first projects on her music stand was a Webcast of new music with electronics planned for May. It was intended to be performed live in real time and streamed from Pollick’s home studio in San Pancho, but because the Internet connection was too slow, that plan was scrapped. Instead, everything was prerecorded for CCRMA to stream from their studio.

Another project she has dived into is creating a new version of a piece that she recorded in 2015, “Užupis Constitution Song” by Swedish composer Ole Saxe. Pollick was living in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the time and working on a recording project with Saxe.

Užupis is a neighborhood within Vilnius that historically has been a center for the arts and artists. The semi-humorous constitution, posted in 23 languages on a wall in Vilnius, contains 41 articles, including “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation,” “Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown,” and “A dog has the right to be a dog.”

Saxe’s piece for solo violin has a melody that “closely mirrors the text as lyrics,” he says. When Pollick recorded “Užupis Constitution Song” in 2015, it appeared on a CD (Peace Piece) and on a YouTube video with the text of the various articles scrolling like subtitles. But, Pollick says, “There are a lot of lyrics in there that are not coming through on the violin part, so I’m going to make it a vocal version.

“I started looking at it, and thought, ’Oh my goodness, this is too high for me.’ So it’s got to be not a violin piece, but a viola piece”—taking it down to a range that Pollick could sing. Saxe re-wrote the song down five notes, and added a piano part. Pollick studied the video of her playing the violin version on the banks of the Vilnele river in Vilnius. She played and recorded the viola part, carefully matching the bow strokes with the video, then recorded the new piano part on her Casio keyboard.

Karen Bentley Pollick playing “Užupis Constitution Song” on the banks of the Vilnele River

“Now that my Webcast is over I’m going to be recording the vocal part, to add onto that,” she says. “It’s one thing to see the articles of the constitution streaming, but once you have the words and the melody it becomes real. I want my voice on it, so I’ve been training and coaching myself and we’re 80% there.“

In her notably diverse musical universe, Pollick has other projects as well. “The other thing I have occupying my music stand, are several amazing virtuosic bluegrass pieces,” she says. “One’s by Joel Friedman called ‘Uncle Hokum’s Fiddle,’ and the other one is by Jimmy Bunch called ‘Devil’s Bargain’.”

Like many of us, Pollick is reading some favorite authors during the pandemic. “One of my favorite writers is Chris Bohjalian,” she says. “I read his book, The Flight Attendant, now I’m reading The Sleepwalker.

“I just finished a book by Alex Halberstadt. It’s a wonderful book—Young Heroes of the Soviet Union—which is about his grandfather being a bodyguard for Josef Stalin. It’s a personal testimonial [that records] how trauma travels from generation to generation.”

She also is active in the San Pancho community. “Our community is based on tourism, and [now] most of the people in my pueblo are unemployed,” she says. “Our goal is to feed everybody. We have a food bank that feeds 250 people per day, five days a week.” Pollick picks up supplies for the food bank from Costco in Puerto Vallarta, about 40 minutes from San Pancho.

San Pancho, Mexico

So she has her musical projects, she has books, and she enjoys being a part of her community. “People are very nice, and the local population is very proud of their pueblo,” she says.

As for the coronavirus, “I feel safe,” she says. “The municipal, state and federal police are taking extremely good care of the population. They have a new normal, and it’s respected. Most people have their face masks on.

“We’re very respectful of ourselves and each other here.”