Rachel Barton Pine held the audience transfixed with her extraordinary rendition of Brahms’ violin concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This American violin virtuosa’s long awaited London debut far exceeded the expectations of those lucky enough to attend the concert on 11th November.
Pine, who has played in countless countries, including Vienna, Brussels, USA and Israel, explains that debuting with this concerto is a personal tradition and it has been very close to her heart for many years. Her passion comes through as she warms to the theme. “What is really special about this piece of music is how integrated it is. It has been called a symphony with a violin. There is nothing gratuitous in it; often the orchestra plays the melody while the violin plays the descant. A piece without an ego, it is satisfying on a deep level, music for music’s sake.”
There is also another strong link between Pine and this concerto: the 1742 Guarnerius del Gesu on which she plays formerly belonged to Marie Soldat, one of the few female violinists of the 19th century. Soldat was one of the first champions of this concerto. When it came to the time in her career for her to get an exceptional violin on which to perform, they were all out of her price range. It was her mentor, Brahms who found the del Gesu for her to play. “It has the deepness and richness needed for this type of music.” Pine finds inspiration in knowing that Brahms would have heard his concerto played on this instrument. “In fact,” she adds with enthusiasm, “since they played together in chamber groups, my violin must have jammed with Brahms!”
The link doesn’t end here. Pine’s Berlin professor, Werner Scholz was taught by Haveman who, in turn, was taught by Joachim. “Professor Scholz would say, ‘Haveman said Joachim said Brahms said to play it like this.’” Clearly, this direct link to Brahms’ creative wishes provides Pine with a deeper understanding of the work. But she is quick to point out: “While it is important to be respectful of the performance history of a piece, you mustn’t feel as if your hands are tied by the weight of tradition. You have to balance being true to the composer and letting your instinct guide you.”
When asked about the physical demands of the piece, Pine admits that it is what she laughingly dubs “the second sweatiest piece” (Joachim’s violin concerto being the first). “It demands a certain level of strength.” This she has built up through her amazing commitment to her practicing schedule. Between the ages of eleven and seventeen (when she finished her formal training), she practised for eight hours every day. But, she explains, the record of which she is most proud is that between three and thirteen she never missed one day of practice, not even Christmas day. “It is the consistency” she claims “that is going to get you where you want to be. Consistency and concentration are really key and you have to be focussed and goal orientated or else you will just be practising bad habits.” She recommends drawing up an outline of what you hope to accomplish in each practice session. Unlike many of her classical peers, she also believes it is useful to learn some non-classical music as well to widen your horizon and to open you up to the other areas of music.
Asked what has motivated her to keep up this level of commitment, Pine responds warmly that she wanted to share the music gift that had been given to her. “Classical music is not mere entertainment; it is something deeper that uplifts people’s souls.” She feels it is a privilege to do this and so, this extraordinarily energetic woman, is eager to give back something in return for all she has received. In 2001, she started the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation which has four components – an instrument loan program to match young musicians with suitable instruments and a non-lesson payments scheme can be accessed by those struggling to find the money for all the extra expenses such as performance clothes and travel expenses. A third exciting initiative is the publication of a ground breaking series of instructional books featuring string music by black composers. Finally, there is Global Heartstrings which provides basic musical supplies to students in developing countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Haiti.
Pine knew firsthand what it was like to have to struggle constantly while trying to pursue the study of an instrument. “Things were very difficult” she explains “I had to rely on scholarships and borrowed instruments. I believed the violin was my calling but every step was hard; even finding money for sheet music.” Her tale is one of overcoming many hardships in pursuit of her dream. She was first introduced to the violin when, at three years old, she was entranced by some eight year olds, in beautiful long dresses, who were playing the violin in her church. Her parents did not take her interest seriously at first but she was allowed to start lessons on a rented violin. “By the time I was five, I had a feeling it was my calling. I knew I was meant to be a violinist. I used to sign my name as Rachel, the violinist. I found out one could earn a living from it and decided that was what I was going to do. I first soloed with an orchestra when I was seven years old and by fifteen had played with fifty to sixty orchestras.” To cope with the demands of practising eight hours a day, she was home schooled. At fourteen, she was already playing at weddings and in orchestras. Her father had trouble keeping a job and so, by her late teens, she was supporting her family. Despite this, the awards started pouring in. When she was seventeen, she became the youngest person and first American to win the J.S. Bach International competition in Leipzig, Germany. She also won competitions in Budapest, Genoa, Italy, Brussels, Vienna and Montreal.
A very serious accident in 1995 caused a break in her career. Her welcome return saw the accolades resume but how did Pine, who is also recognised for her humility, manage to stay grounded? She explains: “My teachers really helped me to keep my head on straight. I was never marketed as a prodigy and they always kept my best interests at heart, rather than thinking about themselves. I was encouraged to answer the question: ‘Do you have something to say about the music?’ and always be searching and refining ideas. I was told that musicians keep learning all the time.” In fact, her new project is to master the Rebec – a three stringed medieval ancestor of the violin.
One of Pine’s remarkable strengths is her commitment to bring classical music to the masses. She is convinced that “Going to a live performance is so overwhelming that if you can just get someone to that first concert, you will see them at another”. Her aim is to break down the barriers which allow people to think classical music is snobby, sleepy, boring and only one type of music. Her evangelical stance is pitched from her love of heavy metal. She drops in on rock radio stations and, after a Led Zeppelin or Metallica piece, has them play a loud and dramatic classical piece. She sees no contradiction between the two. “Many rock musicians are classically trained. My favourite heavy metal groups play with so much intensity – in concerts they always give 150%. I try to do the same in my concerts and by reaching out aim to involve every member of the audience in what I am feeling. Classical music encompasses every nuance of human emotions.”
Talking to Pine, one gets a sense of her absolute dedication to music. A phrase which keeps recurring in her concert reviews is ‘an experience of a lifetime’ so I’m waiting with eager anticipation for the 11th November!
by Alexandra Wylie, age 15
23rd October 2008
Rachel Barton-Pine commented the following to her publicist after the telephone interview: "I was VERY impressed with this young lady, a 15-year-old cellist. She was more prepared and had more intelligent questions than many of the adult professional journalists who interview me!"
Allie Wylie 2nd January 1993 - 25th November 2010 R.I.P.