Rachel Barton Pine, The Violin Virtuoso Who Cheated Death
A child prodigy, Rachel Barton Pine was already playing violin with professional orchestras at 7. A life-threatening accident didn’t stop her from achieving international success.
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s life is a seemingly unending list of extraordinary achievements, from her soloist debut at age 10 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to her recent live performances of Paganini’s ‘24 Caprices For Solo Violin’--a series of virtuosic pieces so technically challenging that very few violinists perform them in sequence. She has published a book of her own arrangements and cadenzas, recorded 24 albums, and travelled with the world’s most prestigious ensembles.
Today sees the release of her latest album: a recording of Mozart’s ‘Complete Violin Concertos’ with the renowned Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and legendary, 90-year-old conductor Sir Neville Marriner.
The album features Pine’s own cadenzas, since Mozart didn’t write any for his violin concertos. (Most contemporary soloists play cadenzas published by musical greats in the 19th and 20th centuries, but Pine prefers playing her own virtuosic interpretations.)
When we meet, Pine—who at 40 possesses a pre-Raphaelite beauty—looks like she was plucked from a Beethoven opera. Her golden-copper hair tumbles down the front of a floor-length, emerald green cape.
The image reflects Pine’s repertoire of mainly Romantic-era composers. But Pine has spent the last three years performing a program of Mozart’s complete concertos in one night (as she did with Paganini’s Caprices), challenging herself to make each concerto sound unique when played back-to-back.
In contrast with the more bombastic violin concertos from Brahms and Beethoven, Mozart’s earlier concertos are “very clean,” Pine says, “so it’s like playing a different dialect on the instrument.”
“Without the richness and thickness that we bring to later concertos like Brahms and Beethoven, the danger is that the music will end up sounding pretty and polite,” she says. Pine turned to Mozart’s operas for inspiration, drawn to their sense of drama-- a certain charm and tempestuousness that captures the composer’s spirit.
“There’s a lot of flirtation, romantic moments and playful moments as well as tragic moments,” she says. “When I’m playing the concertos, I’m constantly thinking about the character in each phrase and trying to bring that to life, which is different than how I approach other concertos.”
Pine’s repertoire is primarily focused on the classics, but she has mastered everything from early medieval music to heavy metal (she fell in love with the latter as a teenager). She recalls surfing her transistor radio and settling the dial on stations that were playing Thrash, Slayer, and Megadeth.
To the untrained ear, classical music and heavy metal couldn’t be more incongruous, but Pine recognized similarities. In her 20s, she regularly played her own virtuosic interpretation of Led Zeppelin on the radio, hoping to lure metal’s head-banging fans to the symphony.
“In practicing and preparing those songs, I discovered that a lot of the heavy metal I’d been listening to was some of the most sophisticated compositionally of all rock music, and very inspired by classical music,” Pine says. “Then all these people in ripped jeans started coming to my concerts.”
But she was never tempted to pick up a guitar. “I have no interest in playing anything without a bow, because the bow is how I sing.”
At age three, while watching middle school-aged girls playing violin in her local church (Pine is a member of the United Church of Christ), she jumped up in her pew and shouted, “I want to do that!” In kindergarten, she began signing her name “Rachel Violinist.” “I didn’t just play the violin,” she says. “It was my entire identity.”
Soon, she was playing alongside the others in church, learning in an environment where she wasn’t exposed to the pressures that come with age and a maturing ego. “I felt much more like a conduit or a channel for music, that the audience wasn’t there to judge me but to share in an uplifting experience.”
By five, she was reading music, and by seven had made her first appearance as a soloist with a professional orchestra and traveled with chamber ensembles. She was in second grade, practicing four or five hours a day by her own volition, when her elementary school principal suggested that her parents take her out of school. “My principal recognized that I was already sacrificing my childhood.”
It was neither an orthodox childhood nor a happy one at her home in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. Her father was unemployed for most of it and her mother, tasked with raising three girls and homeschooling Pine, was unable to go back to work as she’d planned. “We were always one missed payment away from losing the roof over our head,” Pine says of the family’s tenuous financial situation. She recalls practicing next to an electric heater when the gas went off, stacking it on crates and rotating them every 10 minutes to stay warm.
By 14, Pine was securing “grown-up gigs,” playing alongside other adults for weddings and pick-up orchestras. But it wasn’t easy being the family breadwinner.
“I knew God intended for me to be a concert violinist, but there were times when it seemed totally illogical. How could I participate in an international competition when we couldn’t pay the rent that month?”
In 1995 came Pine’s most traumatic challenge--and fight. Her violin strap got caught in the doors of a Chicago commuter train as she tried to step off. Pinned against the train, she was dragged some 200 feet before she was run over, leaving her with half of her left leg severed and a mangled right foot.
For months Pine struggled just to sit up in bed, though she managed to play the National Anthem for a Chicago Bulls playoff game in May, just five months after the incident. (“It was a 90-second performance, and I had to rest for days afterwards.”) But after 40 surgeries and intense physical therapy, she learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. Four years later, Pine was awarded $29.6 million in a lawsuit against the commuter line and railroad company--after lawyers' and past-medical expenses were paid, around half the sum was designated exclusively for Pine's future medical costs.
“I sort of saw it as just another bump in the road,” she says of the accident. “I do think a lot of life is random and that God’s purpose is to help you celebrate joyful moments and get through the challenging ones. I’ve lived my life according to that belief, even though I can’t justify it with logic.”
Pine insists that composing didn’t come naturally to her. “I sort of learned by necessity, like when I was asked to play the National Anthem for the Bulls and needed to come up with a version for virtuoso violin.” She frequently applies mathematical logic when unpacking a piece of music. “I am always analyzing structure, which helps when it comes to writing cadenzas.”
Underpinning it all is a desire to convey, and share her own passion, with audiences. “It’s not just about making sure the concert halls are well-attended or about succeeding in my profession,” she says. “It’s about uplifting people’s spirits.”
As for her future plans, Pine hopes to continue expanding and deepening her repertoire while traveling the world with her husband and three-year-old daughter. “More than anything, I want to be like Sir Neville—to keep playing ‘til I drop.”
It’s not an uncommon sentiment among artists. But coming from Pine, who once confronted the threat of mortality so terrifyingly, one knows how keenly she must mean it.
Rachel Barton Pine’s Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos is out on Avie.