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February 17, 2014IM -
Here, Rachel Barton Pine presents the image of a polished and proper classical violinist, and most of the time, that’s exactly what she is. On a typical day in the life of the 35-year-old member of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), Pine might take her place in front of a symphony orchestra, position her violin under her chin, draw her bow across the strings, and perform an exquisite rendition of the Brahms violin concerto; or she might sit down with her baroque chamber music group, Trio Settecento, with John Mark Rozendaal of Local 802 (New York City) and David Schrader, also of Local 10-208, and play well-researched and historically accurate interpretations of music by Bach and Handel.
But when the performance is over, Pine will put her violin away in a case covered with the names of her favorite bands, like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, and Black Sabbath. And the next time she takes it out, it might be at a nightclub filled with screaming hard-rock fans, where she’ll head-bang and shred on stage with her own metal band — and she’ll play that part just as well.
It might seem that Pine leads something of a double life, but whatever the genre, she is, and always has been, a violinist to the core. She started lessons with a teacher down the street in her Chicago neighborhood at the age of three, and it didn’t take her long to realize that the violin would form her identity in life. “In kindergarten, I started signing my papers ‘Rachel, violinist,’” remembers Pine, who now signs her name with a smiling eighth note.
While most other violin students who start playing at a young age might be moving on to the second Suzuki book around age six, Pine was moving on to the concerto repertoire. She made her professional debut as a soloist with the Chicago String Ensemble when she was only seven years old — but that’s not to say her path to success as a musician was straightforward.
“I grew up in a financially struggling household. We were constantly getting our phone and electricity cut off, and we were always months behind in our rent payments,” says Pine. “It was always an emotional struggle to hold on to my faith that playing the violin was what I was meant to do with my life, when there were roadblocks at every turn.” She hasn’t forgotten that struggle: one of her outreach programs, the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation, currently supports 38 talented young artists, providing them with funds for things that scholarship money doesn’t cover, like travel expenses and concert clothes.
When Pine was 16, she took a position with Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and subbed with other Chicago orchestras to help support her family. While it was a lot of pressure to have that sort of responsibility as a teenager, Pine is grateful for those experiences because they exposed her to all facets of life as a working musician — including the importance of the AFM, which she also joined at 16. “As a home-school assignment, I had to write a paper about the AFL-CIO, and as I was learning about the history of unions in America, I was seeing on a daily basis how the AFM was protecting us,” she remembers. “To this day, I feel a sense of solidarity with my brothers and sisters that I’m playing with every night.”
At the time of the phone interview in early March, Pine was in the middle of a rare few weeks at home in Chicago. She had been on the road for the first seven weeks of the year, in a different city or country every week, performing different repertoire at every tour stop. In the beginning of April, she jets off to Russia to record the Glazunov violin concerto with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
But Pine’s busy schedule certainly doesn’t cease while she’s at home. She still has a calendar full of performances, including concerts with her Chicago-based doom/thrash heavy metal band, Earthen Grave, which formed in 2008.
Pine first turned to heavy metal as an escape from classical music during her young career. As she delved further into classical repertoire and began to constantly analyze different interpretations of pieces, it became harder and harder to relax to that same music. Instead, she would turn up songs that were as far away as possible from what she was practicing and playing every day — or so she thought.
“I would think, at least I can listen to heavy metal and shut off my brain and indulge in just rocking out,” she says. “But years later, when I started playing my favorite rock songs on the violin, I quickly discovered that the reason I had been attracted to heavy metal was that, in fact, it’s probably the closest of the nonclassical genres to classical music. It’s very sophisticated in terms of its composition.”
Each time Pine goes back on the road for another round of touring, she takes with her the lessons she learns when she indulges her rock alter ego with Earthen Grave. “In a heavy metal concert, you can tell in the moment how into it your audience is. That’s been very educational for me, figuring out what I’m doing right when the audience is getting into it, and what I’m not doing as well when they’re not,” she explains. “I feel that since I started playing with my metal band, my classical performances have become that much more emotionally engaged and I’m able to connect even better to the public.”
Connecting to fans is of paramount importance to Pine, who offers musical advice on her podcast and diligently posts to her YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter pages. “They’ve been a wonderful way to bring classical music to yet more people,” Pine says of her social networking sites. “In a way, I can perform for people who might live in a town that I’m not going to visit in the next few years, because they can see me play on YouTube. It’s about feeling like the world is a smaller place.”
Pine’s main website, rachelbartonpine.com, breaks off into different sections — one for classical listeners and one for “metalheads” — but her mission is to merge those disparate groups by encouraging rock fans to give classical music a try. She goes about this any way she can think of, from making appearances on rock radio stations, to coming up with a list of the “most metal pieces of classical music” for Decibel magazine, to breaking out her violin at bars or cafés and mixing in some Paganini between blues, jazz, and rock standards.
“I’ve always felt that bringing classical music to people who haven’t yet discovered it is so important because classical really does bring something that nothing else quite approaches, in terms of it’s ability to express every possible nuance of human emotion and human experience,” she says. “It has the ability to ebb and flow without boundaries.”
She has also found that one of the most personal and natural forms of musical expression is writing and performing her own compositions, something she first did out of necessity when she wanted to play a concerto that did not have a written cadenza, but which quickly became a labor of love. Pine’s collection of cadenzas, arrangements, and original compositions was recently published as a part of Carl Fischer’s Master’s Collection series, alongside works by the likes of Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. She is the only woman, and only living artist, published in the collection. “I’m hoping that my example will give other people the idea that they can do this, too,” she says. “You don’t have to be one of those dead guys to write stuff!”
One of Pine’s first experiences with composition came when she was invited to perform the national anthem for a 1995 Chicago Bulls playoff game — only four months after a devastating train accident left her with life-altering injuries.
“There didn’t seem to be any unaccompanied violin version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and I couldn’t get up there and just play the tune in first position, so I had no choice but to write my own version,” Pine recalls. “I realized that it was a chance to introduce tons of new listeners to the violin and what the violin can do, so I crammed all kinds of techniques and tone colors into this two-minute piece. It was a very inspiring moment in my life, because I started having strangers writing me and coming up to me on the street saying, ‘Hey, I saw you at the Bulls game, and I never realized that violins were so cool!’”
Pine has been striving to spread the word ever since, one impromptu concert and one Twitter post at a time.