It’s rare that a symphony orchestra would host a thrash-metal musician—let alone hand her the reins for an entire concert. Then again, when that musician happens to be virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine, the divisions between musical genres tend to blur a little.
Chicago-based Pine, 39, has built a career as one of the most respected and critically acclaimed classical musicians, praised for her passion and depth of communication. She’s also a huge fan of Slayer—and regularly puts down her 1742 “ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Gesu to tuck her electric five-string Viper under her chin and headbang with her band Earthen Grave.
No need for local symphony lovers to stage a riot, however: Friday and Saturday (December 20 and 21), the eclectic musician will lead the VSO in a performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, and Joseph Boulogne le Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s Violin Concerto in A Major. But as Pine explains, on the line from her Chicago office, the worlds of Vivaldi and Metallica aren’t so far apart.
“The funny thing is that Vivaldi is very connected to metal,” she insists, with a sly laugh. “A lot of the great rock guitarists grew up studying classical music or look to classical music for inspiration. Romantic-era music is very inspiring to metal artists for its power and drama. And baroque-era music is very inspiring to metal
instrumentalists for its various figurations—what you would call, in rock music, the licks or the riffs. ”
While she won’t be shredding any Megadeth, Pine’s independent spirit will be in evidence during the concert, as she’ll be performing her own cadenzas during the Mozart concerto. “Well, here’s the thing,” she begins, in answer to a question about why she chooses to do so. “Had Mozart left some for us, of course I would have played Mozart. But since he didn’t write any, he intended for each performer to come up with their own. Typically, these days, performers from the 21st century play cadenzas written by great violinists from the 19th or early 20th centuries—people like [Jascha] Heifetz or [Fritz] Kreisler or [Joseph] Joachim. And those are excellent cadenzas. One could never hope to top them. But, on the other hand, if you’re the interpreter…it makes more sense to also do your own cadenzas, because that’s the most personal way to present a concerto and the most organically related to the rest of your interpretation.
“And frankly,” she adds with a laugh, “it’s just fun.”
They’re more than that, though; her cadenzas, along with her original compositions and arrangements, were published by music publisher Carl Fischer in 2009, putting her in the same league as the great Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz in the “Masters Collection” series. This also earned Pine the distinction of being the only living artist—and the first woman—to join the series.
Pine’s accomplishments as a performer and interpreter stand on their own as a testament to her skill and talent. But viewed in light of the obstacles she has overcome, they are remarkable. When she was a child, her home life was beset by poverty and instability; her father was often unemployed, and the young prodigy became the household’s primary breadwinner. Then, as a 20-year-old on the cusp of a dazzling international career, she suffered a horrific accident when exiting a commuter railcar in Chicago, her violin strap becoming trapped in the doors. She was dragged over 100 metres along the tracks before being pulled under the train. Her left leg was severed above the knee, and her right leg was severely damaged.
“When I was injured…it wasn’t as life-changing an event as people might think, because I’d already faced so many obstacles and challenges,” she explains, her normally exuberant voice softening a little. “When I was a kid…our phone and electricity were constantly getting turned off. Some weeks, we didn’t even know how the heck we were going to pay for groceries and have enough money left over to put gas in the car to drive out to the lessons in the suburbs.…I was able to make it despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, thanks to generous individuals who helped me along the way.”
Today, Pine and her husband, Greg Pine, a health-care consulting firm CEO, run the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation, which supports young musicians with instrument loans and grants, and promotes the work of black composers. And amid all of this, Pine also finds the time to parent her two-year-old daughter, Sylvia, who, with her husband, accompanies her on all her tour dates.
“She started touring with me when she was three weeks old,” says Pine, proudly. “I felt like I’d already had such a long break because you’re not supposed to fly the last six weeks of your pregnancy. When you add on two more weeks, that was two whole months and I don’t think I’d been home from touring for two whole months since I was a young teenager. It was very unnatural—I was like, ‘I need to hit the road again!’ ”
When her schedule brings her to Vancouver, Pine says, she’s hoping to lure a few metalheads to the Chan Centre. “When I play the last movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’, I’m playing speed metal,” she insists. “But that’s just a backwards way to say speed metal stole everything from Vivaldi.…I think anybody who enjoys rock music who is not so familiar with classical, it’s just a great way to get your feet wet and give it a try. You’re definitely going to understand and enjoy what Vivaldi is doing. Because you don’t know it, but you’ve actually heard it before.”