Look closely, and you might see Molly MacKinnon in a string section near you: she’s an occasional sub with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and has also performed with the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra. And there was a time, the 26-year-old violinist tells the Straight, when this meant she was getting comfortably close to her ultimate career goal.
“My intention was to go that whole orchestral route, where you look for your symphony job, essentially,” she says in a telephone conversation from her East Van home. In that regard, MacKinnon seemed off to a promising start. Growing up in Nelson, she was lucky enough to study with former CBC Radio Orchestra mainstay Wendy Herbison, as part of a small gang of talented young women.
“We’d play the festivals and have concerto concerts, so it was pretty high stakes, even from a young age,” MacKinnon explains. “And of the five of us that I’m thinking about, three of us have gone on to become professional musicians, which is a rare thing for a small town.”
MacKinnon continued her studies at UBC, graduating with a BA in violin performance in 2012—and it was there, in her final year, that her priorities shifted.
“Just through the grapevine, I was recommended to play for this Neworld Theatre show called The Idiot, which really changed my trajectory,” she recalls. “It was based around [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky’s epic novel, and what was so cool about it, for me, was the way that music and musicians were integrated into the show. I remember thinking ‘Oh, this. This is what I want to do.’”
The experience triggered MacKinnon’s latent appetite for risk-taking and theatricality, which she’d previously satisfied by teaching herself to ride a unicycle. Now, though, her goals are a little more sophisticated, especially with Never the Last, a music-theatre exploration of the life of the Russian-Canadian composer and violinist Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté.
The piece, which made its debut at the rEvolver Festival this summer, is a collaboration between MacKinnon and playwright Christine Quintana, but it is also rooted in her time at UBC. “I was originally introduced to Eckhardt-Gramatté by my teacher at UBC, Jasper Wood, one of the few violinists to have recorded all 10 of her solo violin caprices,” she says. “I remember just being really compelled by them. Each one is either kind of autobiographical or a little more poetic. One of them represents the soul of a little bird in a cage, and so these pieces are kind of inherently dramatic.”
MacKinnon and Quintana are currently waiting for news of a grant that will allow them to develop Never the Last further. They’re also collaborating with the Little Chamber Music Series That Could’s Mark Haney on a site-specific work for Mountain View Cemetery, while MacKinnon’s chamber-pop band the Ruffled Feathers is readying a CD for release later this fall. It’s a busy life for the young musician—but not so busy that she won’t step up if the VSO calls.