By Lenny Cavallaro
Groveland, MA, USA
Excerpt from "Recuerdos de la Alhambra",
Rachel Barton Pine
I recently heard an advance-copy disc of Violin Lullabies, a marvelous collection of twenty-five short works either composed or arranged/transcribed for violin and piano. Some are very familiar – e.g., Brahms' famous "Cradle Song," or Gershwin's "Summertime." Others are certainly well-known from the standard repertoire, and a few were absolute "discoveries" for me by composers of whom I had never heard.
Violin Lullabies is a very recent Cedille Records release, performed by violinist Rachel Barton Pine and pianist Matthew Hagle. Pine doubtless had her daughter, Sylvia (the infant whose picture graces the cover!), in mind as she selected these gems. I discussed the lullabies and many other topics with this fascinating artist.
The world-renowned Pine, a former child prodigy, was the youngest-ever to win the International Johann Sebastian Bach International Violin Competition (at age 17). She has performed with major orchestras under leading conductors, and has a large number of successful recordings to her credit as well. These accomplishments are certainly impressive, but the versatile Pine also performs with a period instrument baroque ensemble, Trio Settecento, and with a heavy metal band, Earthen Grave. Moreover, she is the only living composer featured in the prestigious Masters Collection series published by Carl Fischer, and she also edited Maud Powell Favorites. I expected a most interesting conversation, and she did not disappoint me!
I shall preface the interview with an enthusiastic endorsement of the CD. The music is enjoyable and highly accessible for listeners, and the performances merit superlatives on all levels. Moreover, the disc offers sounds that are genuinely "soothing," not only for toddlers (Sylvia is just shy of twenty months at this writing), but for all of us.
STAY THIRSTY: You are so multi-faceted! I have so many questions that I think it will be easiest just to start with this CD of beautiful lullabies so recently released by Cedille Records. The first time I listened, I made it a point not to look at the titles along each track. Obviously, I recognized a good number of the works anyway, but I also found "strangers" within the collection. Ludwig Schwab's "Scottish Lullaby," for example, was a true discovery!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes, he was the most obscure of the whole bunch!
STAY THIRSTY: How did you select him?
Excerpt from "Berceuse écossaise
- Rachel Barton Pine, Matthew Hagle
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I looked up "berceuse" ["lullaby"] in some library databases, and this one popped up in one of my online searches. Having recorded the Scottish Fantasies for Violin and Orchestra (2005), I was intrigued by the melody, which appears to be a traditional Scottish tune, though of unknown origin. It really captures the Celtic flavor, and I'm glad you liked it.
STAY THIRSTY: You assembled so many wonderful pieces! Schubert is one of my gods; Respighi…Ravel…but what is your feeling about doing some of these works you knew were scored differently – e.g., the de Falla is for voice, "Firebird" is a famous bassoon solo, and the Schubert is also a song, a Lied.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Basically, the transcribed pieces fell into two categories. Some were originally for voice; others, for solo piano. Often, however, the composer reworked them for violin – for example, the Stravinsky. Historically, we can see a number that were performed as concert pieces by violinists on their recitals. Effectively, then, I didn't take these sung lullabies and turn them into violin versions, and I wasn't precipitously recording them on violin in 2012. I was instead performing works that had long been in the repertoire – originally perhaps written for piano and voice, but which had since become established violin pieces. This was really no different than the situation that arises with any transcription from the past.
Rachel Barton Pine
(credit: Andrew Eccles)
STAY THIRSTY: A valid argument! If the music can move the listener to tears – and it certainly did for this listener – it's legitimate. By the way, I must say that also about the Schubert. It was absolutely exquisite!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: At one time, transcriptions were de riguere, and composers often set about making them. Moreover, they were perfectly accepting of a good transcription of their pieces.
STAY THIRSTY: So true; we know that Liszt did that for a number of Schubert's songs, to say nothing of his famous operatic transcriptions, and Bach transcribed the works of other composers, most notably Vivaldi.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I didn't actually consider any "categories" when I made the final selections. I didn't give more weight toward those originally written for violin; neither did I give more weight toward women composers, African American composers, or any other such designation. My prime objective was to make sure there was a variety of character, so that we have the warm ones, the intimate ones, the mysterious ones, some in the minor key, and so on, just to mix things up. Of course, far more than 20-odd lullabies are very, very good, but these are the ones that just seemed to "jump out" at me at the time. Afterward, I began to cross-reference and see which nationalities or ethnicities were represented. Of course, I was tickled to see that four women composers had made the cut, but I guess this goes to show that "if you give them a fair shake…"
STAY THIRSTY: Since there are so many splendid works in this category, are you contemplating a second album?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Well, suppose we wait and see whether we have another child!
STAY THIRSTY: Best of luck on that score!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I certainly have many outstanding works left – more than enough to do another CD.
STAY THIRSTY: Indeed. The lullaby is a popular form.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: It was also very interesting for me to explore that type of violin playing. If we think about the violin repertoire, particularly the sorts of things most often heard in concerts and recorded, we see that everything performed as solo with orchestra – the concerti – obviously has a certain large-scale drama to it. Everything played with piano accompaniment is on a smaller scale, but typically larger works – sonatas – and even some of the "album leaf" pieces have a considerably wider emotional palette than we see in the lullaby. It's generally a rather short, simple piece that, on the page, might look easy, at least from a technical perspective. Of course, it's never easy to capture all the artistic nuances, but the music appears "easy" in the sense that it can probably be played by a less technically advanced player. Most of the time, these short, simple pieces are not included on recital programs. In fact, more often than not, if short pieces are offered, they're more dramatic and virtuosic, or have at least something of a "serious" aspect about them. This is not to say the lullabies aren't "serious," but they are so unapologetically simple, and in their simplicity, the emotions don't get very vigorous or passionate.
STAY THIRSTY: Of course, lullabies have been recorded, though a CD with nothing but lullabies must be virtually unprecedented.
Excerpt from "Oror (Lullaby)"
- Rachel Barton Pine, Matthew Hagle
RACHEL BARTON PINE: That seems to be true, with regard to lullabies for violin. As I was listening to some of the lullaby recordings, they were often on a CD that included other works by the same composer. For example, I might get a CD of Respighi or Ysaye pieces that included a lullaby. However, it seems performers often ignored or disregarded the title, "berceuse," with the result that one might get an interpretation with too much intense vibrato, just to cite one problem. In other words, it was as though the performer was interpreting the piece the way one might if one didn't know it was a lullaby! Once we realize it's a lullaby, we must strive for something gentle and soothing, yet still sophisticated; it must be very interesting, yet it must stay within a very narrow part of the spectrum. And this actually becomes quite a challenge from a violinistic standpoint. How do I make those soft, subtle colors have all the incremental degrees of variety, so that these little pieces can have all the nuance without losing the fundamental gentleness? I felt this resulted in an approach to the violin, in terms of the vibrato and use of the bow, that I had never had the opportunity to explore quite so deeply. And, then there was the personal aspect. This album is also an offering of love to my child. Of course, it's also for all the other people of all ages who enjoy the music! But for me, as a fan of the violin, this was pretty intriguing and quite a challenge.
STAY THIRSTY: The sonority of the violin, particularly on the G-string, was astounding! In fact, there were a couple of passages where someone less familiar with the instrument might have thought he or she was listening to a viola or cello.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Well, that's the "del Gesu" for you! But have you ever heard of a violin album before where fully half of the recording is played con sordino [with the mute]? That's pretty unusual right there.
STAY THIRSTY: No, but I'd have to guess that most violinists would steer clear of such a self-effacing program. There are so many pieces of comparable duration but much more brilliant -- concert pieces that might certainly "make the violinist look good."
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Exactly! There the violinist can project in the full bloom of sound, where here, of necessity, it has to be more restrained. I never do get to let the sound become completely rich; it's always more contained and restrained, and I can never really show more than a sliver of myself. And yet, to plumb the depths of what one can truly do is a challenge, though – as you noted – it doesn't allow for the usual indulgence, the chance to be expressive and show off a bit.
STAY THIRSTY: No, but your CD shows so much! I mean, there are so many different layers within that restricted range of what the violin can achieve. Such subtle gradations –
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Perhaps this was because I was privileged to be able to choose from such a vast collection of mutes – none of which, by the way, are the mutes with which I perform. I normally use a rubber device, which still allows for projection in a concert hall. However, with the microphone up close, I had to figure out not only how to lower the decibels, but how to get the colors that were ideal for this piece or that piece. One of my dear friends, Fred Spector, a retired violinist from the Chicago Symphony – he was with the orchestra for 47 years! – has made a lifelong hobby of collecting different types of mutes, and he let me go through them. I tried all sorts of mutes – ivory, metal, wooden – in a variety of sizes and styles. He has something like 10,000 different devices representing perhaps 5,000 different types. Some might be more suited for chamber music; others, for orchestral work. A few are the best choice for a concerto with orchestra.
STAY THIRSTY: That sounds like quite a science!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Indeed. I finally chose three of them for the muted lullabies, working them into the categories of "soft yet warm," then a "delicate" one, and then one that sounded more "mysterious." However, a new problem arose during the recording.
STAY THIRSTY: Just what you needed!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Two of those three mutes caused my violin to develop "wolf" notes.
STAY THIRSTY: ["Wolf" is a term used to describe the extent to which a given tone is "false" or out of tune within a given key.]
Rachel Barton Pine
(credit: Andrew Eccles)
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I actually had to have my violin adjusted between the different sets of muted lullabies. Thus, the mutes, as gorgeous as they were, were serviceable only for a recording. I couldn't possibly perform with them, because not only did the mutes make the sound levels too soft for the concert hall, but they also left me with "howling wolves" – intonation that was simply not "true" for the instrument. Naturally, the lullabies that had those mutes were scored using the very pitches that "wolfed," so the bottom line is that I could do the pieces this way on the recording, but that's the only medium through which anyone will ever hear it!
STAY THIRSTY: When you say "adjustments," what did they do – change the bridge?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Just little tweaks to the feet of the bridge, or where it was placed. They didn't adjust the sound post.
STAY THIRSTY: I knew the CD had a beautiful engineering job, and apparently the technician attending to your instrument did a remarkable job as well. Of course, you, as performer, must also feel very gratified with the finished product, and I'm sure you daughter is a very fortunate – and blessed! – little girl.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: She's 19 months now, and she already has 16 stamps on her passport, so she's quite a well-traveled baby! She started going off on tour with me when she was three weeks old, and we have a nanny from ChARTer Nannies, an agency for touring musicians. I'm actually their first classical client, but a number of indie bands have used their services. We've been very impressed by their professionalism and highly recommend them.
STAY THIRSTY: Well, you are indeed an artist on tour, and it's interesting that you fall into such a niche market. Then again, if you did not, you probably wouldn't have undertaken such a CD project.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: True. And I'd just like to add that unlike so many children's albums available today, this one is true classical music for children. Of course, I hope that people of all ages will enjoy it, too. Every piece of music on there is a real example of classical concert music. Who knows? In addition to those listening just for the music, there might be grown-ups who want to relax, and people wrestling with insomnia, and many others. So I think it has an enormous potential audience.
I think of myself as an advocate for classical music – almost a cultural missionary, in a sense. I like to tell people classical is just as dramatic, exciting, and intense as any other type of music, but here I'm presenting them with an album of pretty sleepy music. Well, that has its place, too. That's not the only aspect of classical music, of course, but there's nothing wrong with indulgence in beautiful little pieces!
Another reason I'm so excited about this album is that some of the works are rather obscure. Who ever heard of Antsev or Rebikov – or Schwab, for that matter? Perhaps listeners will want to explore those composers more fully. And, of course, those who aren't familiar with classical music might now be interested in discovering what else the better-known names – Brahms, Ravel, or Schubert – wrote.
STAY THIRSTY: A noteworthy objective indeed! Now, this type of music – intimate and low-key – stands in stark contrast to the virtuosic repertoire with which you are also quite comfortable. If we can move to the other extreme, you've had quite a history with Paganini yourself. You garnered prizes at no fewer than six international competitions, including the Paganini, and you got special awards for the best interpretation of Paganini caprices from two of the others.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes, that was during a stretch between 1991 and 1993, when I was between 16 to 18 years of age. Paganini is by no means my only interest or my primary interest, but his music has certainly been one of my major endeavors.
STAY THIRSTY: What do you think of both Paganini and the caprices, and their respective importance today?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I think in terms of going farther than anyone had ever gone before, he and his music are extremely significant. Paganini took the violin to an entirely new level. Of course, his music is still an immense challenge to present day players, though we have our own "extended techniques" today, given the nature of modern music. However, fingered octaves are just as hard now as they ever have been.
STAY THIRSTY: …and thirds and sixths.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: And violinists are playing them at younger and younger ages, too. Still, I think the piece of the puzzle that gets lost is that Paganini was not coming from any particular violin "school," not even the Italian. Musically, he was much more indebted to the Italian bel canto operatic composers. We see that in the shape of his melodies, the lyricism, and the beauty of sound. Of course, his stage persona was competing against the operatic superstars, but leaving that aside, the bel canto style is all about gracefulness, sweetness, and elegance, and when people use more of the later romantic, Eastern European type of sound to perform the Paganini pieces, which are really more late classical/early romantic in nature, they overlook the bel canto aspects. In fact, this "muscular" approach to his music really misses the mark, in my opinion. It doesn't do justice to what Paganini intended, and it doesn't bring the music fully to life. Paganini was not just about athletics on the violin, even though he wrote all these amazing works. What we hear in the bel canto singers is much more to the mark. Yes, they have the brilliant flourishes, but then they also require the timing and the beautifully shaped melodic lines, and these are such an important part of Paganini's music as well. In fact, I've actually had some sessions working on Paganini with vocal coaches, and they have given me insights that none of my violin instructors did. I now try to maintain that sense of music, even when I'm playing the caprices.
I have also started to include spoken program notes to try to guide the listeners. Prior to that, I would get comments along the lines of, "Well, that was very impressive," but I think they often heard all twenty-four caprices as a lot of "more of the same." After I started adding the spoken program notes, I began getting comments more like, "Wow, there is so much variety within these caprices, and the concert was so interesting."
STAY THIRSTY: That is so true, and I agree with you completely. However, you also found a terrific amount of variety in another set of caprices. In 2011, you recorded the Capricho Latino CD, including solo pieces by composers of whom most people have probably never heard.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: That disc was inspired in part by my background, and brings to mind a time when I didn't always have enough money to pay for a pianist. I became very interested in the repertoire for unaccompanied violin, and then encountered Harry Edlund, who had the world's largest collection of that genre. A number of composers over the years have given us some truly amazing pieces. Moreover, I find unaccompanied violin works extremely useful – for example, if I'm going into a pub to introduce people to classical music, or appearing on a radio station for an interview.
STAY THIRSTY: The CD was dedicated "to the memory of Harry Edlund." How did you stumble upon him? Wasn't he Scandinavian?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Swedish. During the course of my research, I discovered his book, Music for Solo Violin Unaccompanied, an encyclopedic text that catalogued thousands of these compositions by both nationality and the period in which they were written. This was the scholarly project to which he had devoted his life – a life that ended prematurely not long after we became acquainted. His widow graciously invited me to come and see his collection of over 1,000 of these works, which was indeed a fascinating experience. She died not much later, and I ended up inheriting the music.
I could probably devote many recording projects to these important compositions, but one of the thoughts that most captivated me was the idea of doing an album of Latin American and Spanish composers. On my honeymoon cruise – around South America – I took along a good number of these pieces. I soon found myself convinced; I absolutely had to make this CD, so I did.
The recording displays many of the different styles of Latin American music – the tango-flavored sounds from Argentina and Uruguay, a Cuban danza, Spanish guitar pieces…. There's also music from the Catalan region that shows a Celtic influence, and if I didn't know better, I'd think I was listening to music inspired by a Scottish bagpipe! Then there's the sort of atonality mixed with Panamanian folk music, and various other styles as well.
STAY THIRSTY: So different from Paganini, and a far cry from the lullabies! However, caprices for unaccompanied violin, like the lullabies, also stand in sharp contrast to what is perhaps the most familiar concert experience – performance of a concerto with orchestra. I mention this in connection with yet another set of your recordings.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes, I've done quite a few.
STAY THIRSTY: True, but what intrigues me is the way you have paired concerti together. Certainly these are unusual, to say the least. Beethoven with Clement, Brahms with Joachim…. Can you tell us a little more about them?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: In general, it's the well-known piece with the less well-known, but I really structured it so as to make sure that the latter was a really good work in its own right and worthy of being heard, and also with the idea that musicologically it might shed new light on the more famous piece. That was, in fact, the goal, and it was really very exciting, for example, to record the Beethoven in the context of its predecessor and the work that inspired it.
My next CD will offer another pair of concerti – the Mendelssohn and the Schumann – along with the Beethoven Romances. I think some people were expecting me to pair the Mendelssohn with a concerto by Ferdinand David (Mendelssohn's dedicatee), but I didn't think the David concerti were as pivotal in shedding new light on the Mendelssohn as were the Joachim for Brahms or Clement for Beethoven. I was also anxious to record the Schumann with this particular conductor, so that it will be more effective than it often can be.
STAY THIRSTY: Actually, I believe there is a somewhat dubious "inspirational" factor here, too. Isn't there a famous "ghost story" connected with the Schumann? Didn't he claim – from his room in the lunatic asylum – that his violin concerto had been dictated to him by the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert?
Rachel Barton Pine
(credit: Andrew Eccles)
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Well, it would seem he had already "lost it" by then. Thereafter, Clara (his wife) locked the music away and said it should never be heard. For a long while, I felt it was at best one of those works I could file away in the "no regrets if I never have the chance to perform" category. However, I then got the opportunity to play it with Christoph-Mathias Mueller, Music Director of the Göttinger Symphonie Orcheste [in Germany]. It was then that I realized something amazing. The orchestral conception is profound. The way the orchestral part is shaped can truly "make or break" the entire composition – almost more so than the soloist's part. This is no mere "accompaniment," and one really needs to give it the attention it requires.
Let me take this a step further: An orchestra can do a mediocre job on the Tchaikovsky concerto, and it will still be a great concerto. However, with the Schumann, if the orchestra plays competently but otherwise without inspiration, it will fall a little flat. On the other hand, with a very thoughtful, nuanced, and well-crafted orchestral part, it becomes a truly great composition.
As a result of this experience performing with Mueller, I came to appreciate the Schumann. Once I knew I would be recording it, I felt the Mendelssohn was the obvious "partner" for it.
STAY THIRSTY: Very interesting, since I'm sure you realize that so many artists have recorded the Mendelssohn with the Bruch.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: There is no reason to pair those two together.
STAY THIRSTY: I could never understand that coupling, either!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Bruch is full-blown romantic; Mendelssohn is early romantic. Aside from the fact that both works are very much beloved, the pairing doesn't make musicological sense.
STAY THIRSTY: So Mendelssohn and Schumann it will be! What other concerti are on the near horizon?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I'll be recording the five Mozart concerti with my own cadenzas.
STAY THIRSTY: Ah, the divine Mozart! But I assume you'll be using the contemporary instrument, your "del Gesu" [Guarneri]?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: That's a good question for someone like me, who does play historically informed early music on period instruments. However, I think the question arises about pitch. For example, my baroque ensemble, Trio Settecento, recorded A French Soiree [another Cedille Records release] at the amazing pitch of 392 for concert-A. However, period harpsichords are usually tuned no lower than 415. Thus, we could record it at the lower pitch, but we could never perform it on tour.
STAY THIRSTY: [NOTE: Today, musicians think in terms of 440 – i.e., 440 vibrations per second – for the pitch that defines concert-A. Some orchestras tune slightly sharper (e.g., 442-444), in order to project a more brilliant sound.The 415 range, sounding at least a half-tone flat, was most common for the same pitch at the time of Mozart. The 392 above sounds closer to a G, or around a full tone flat.]
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I thought it would be an intriguing idea to play the Mozart concerti on my unaltered Nicolo Gagliano violin, but we ultimately decided on contemporary instruments for the recording, because this is how most audiences experience me playing this repertoire in performance.
STAY THIRSTY: The period instruments have their proponents, though. In fact, I still remember the enormous impact of hearing the Bach Chaconne [from the Partita in D Minor] on a baroque violin. I've never really enjoyed the Bach as much on a contemporary violin ever since.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Well, of course, on tour I always play Bach on a contemporary instrument, although I never use a modern bow. It's a practical consideration. If I'm playing in the context of a mixed recital program, I'm not going to carry two violins on the airplane and switch back and forth between them during the concert! However, I do switch bows, for stylistic purposes. By using the baroque bow – and very little vibrato – I feel I'm almost all the way "there." I can't imagine trying to play Bach with a modern bow, and haven't used one in a couple of decades.
STAY THIRSTY: However, you do play the unaltered instrument with your baroque ensemble. How difficult is it for you to make the adjustment from one pitch to the other? Doesn't it jar your ear to go from modern pitch to 415 or 392 – to say nothing of the gut strings, shorter neck and fingerboard, and all the other minor yet significant differences?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: There are different levels of "perfect pitch," and I have a particularly sensitive ear. I must actually practice with my instrument tuned to 440, 441, and/or 442, depending upon the pitch any given orchestra might select. It's very useful to have perfect pitch if one is playing atonal music or shifting up a fingerboard; I always know where I am. On the other hand, when I switch between concert-A's, it's almost a handicap! It took me a long time to get used to 415, and then, when I had to drop to 392: my goodness! It was a huge problem for me, while someone without perfect pitch – but with good relative pitch – would actually have had a lot less trouble.
STAY THIRSTY: Yes, I can see how that might provide some challenges to someone who was effectively "transposing." Of course, the pitches were lower and less uniform in those days. So, between the baroque ensemble and most of your other concerts, you play two very different instruments.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Indeed – one with a great history, and the other with a great story.
STAY THIRSTY: The "history" must refer to the "ex-Soldat" Guarneri, once owned by Marie Soldat, who studied with Joachim.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes, it was Brahms himself who chose this instrument for her. I should add that while I had played a number of excellent violins in the past, I always seemed interested in "what else was out there." However, with this ex-Soldat, it was like falling in love; I find I simply have no desire ever to play another [modern] violin!
STAY THIRSTY: So many fiddlers speak with the same passion and conviction!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: And, of course, I needed a great bow to match the great violin. Many people don't realize what a fine relationship is required. Ergonomically speaking, most violinists can play perfectly well on almost any great violin, but when it comes to the bow, things are very different. A bow that might be wonderful for one violinist could feel absolutely unnatural for another. So, it's a problem of finding a bow that's "right" not only for the performer, but also for the instrument. Indeed, I often joke that I had to try out far more bows to find the right one than the number of guys I had to date to find my husband!
STAY THIRSTY: No comment there! What type of bow do you have?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: It's a Dominique Peccatte. He's the second most famous bow-maker after Francois Tourte, but while the Tourte bow works very well with a Stradivari violin, I'm not at all convinced it's the right bow for the Guarneri. The Peccatte is simply a little stronger.
STAY THIRSTY: What bow do you use with the Gagliano?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I have a modern baroque bow, which works perfectly well.
STAY THIRSTY: You mentioned a great coincidence, so I must assume it is with your baroque violin.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes, and I'm so lucky that my Nicolo Gagliano is what we call an "unaltered" instrument. Most of the violins from that era got "modernized," and if we then try to readjust them back to the baroque style, it's a little like trying to undo a sex-change operation. It might or might not come out well!
Of course, some of the "unaltered" violins were left that way because they were simply inferior instruments, and no one ever bothered to "modernize" them! On the other hand, most of the Strads and Guarneris have, of course, been altered to the modern style. And finally, one could argue that the baroque-style violins that are built today are perhaps the most authentic, since in the baroque period, those same instruments were relatively new, whereas an instrument like my Gagliano is obviously an antique!
But here's another interesting twist. I also play the viola d'amore, a six- or seven-stringed instrument with paired [sympathetic] strings. A few years ago, I actually found a Gagliano viola d'amore for sale, though its strings were in very bad condition. It hadn't been played since 1970, so it was impossible for me to try it, since the gut strings were over forty years old. Nevertheless, since the instrument was unaltered and in excellent condition, I decided to take a chance. I went ahead and bought it, believing deep down that it would probably turn out to be quite beautiful, as indeed it did.
However – talk about an amazing coincidence! – here's where the story gets interesting. I took it for restoration, and my luthier took one look at that d'amore and my baroque violin and cried out, "Oh, my God! The tops of these two instruments were made from the same tree!" I guess I have reunited siblings.
STAY THIRSTY: Wow! Yes, they actually can confirm these relationships.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: And I am in love with both of them! Of course, I love all three of these instruments – the two Gaglianos and the del Gesu. I own the Gaglianos; the Guarneri belongs to my patron. But in a sense, even when we "own" one of these violins, we're really just the temporary caretakers, since the instrument is going to outlive us, hopefully, and have many more adventures after we're long gone.
STAY THIRSTY: Meanwhile, of course, you have "adventures" with yet another instrument – one that seems in some ways almost diametrically opposed to your baroque ensemble and period instruments.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I assume you're talking about my heavy metal group. However, what you suggest is not really true. Of course, the baroque art is about subtleties, and the metal is about being very loud. Nevertheless, from the perspective of musical exploration, particularly the opportunity to improvise, they're actually not so far apart. In all classical music, one can be very spontaneous with the way one plays the notes, and in the baroque, one gets to add ornaments. In metal, we get to jam, to do solos and riffs and all that other good stuff. It has been fun to be in my own band and do some collective songwriting, which is almost unthinkable in classical; we don't sit down with three other people and jointly compose. But here, someone starts with a riff, and then someone else can add a layer of melody, someone else might rearrange the order of the riffs, and soon we're all putting our two cents' worth in, and it comes out a joint composition, which is really fascinating.
"Dismal Times" - Earthen Grave
STAY THIRSTY: And you use an electric violin?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I don't consider it an electric violin. It's a six-string instrument, played like a violin, with two more low strings – the C-string of the viola and an F, which takes us into the cello range. And it's not held under the chin; it's strapped onto the body. I'd call it a "cousin" of the violin, but it's definitely not a violin.
Also, I should explain that I'm not playing crossover. When I play metal, it's metal! There's nothing at all classical about it, except for the fact that many of the great rock artists have indeed been influenced by classical music and have stolen a fair amount of classical figurations to use in their own pieces. So I really get the sense that things have gone full circle when I'm doing a work inspired by Randy Rhoads, who was inspired by Vivaldi – whom I perform with a baroque ensemble.
It has been very interesting for me as a performer to play "plugged in" in front of rock audiences. In classical music, where we don't want to miss the slightest subtlety, the audience is very quiet, applauding only at the end of the piece.
STAY THIRSTY: And sometimes at the end of a movement!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: True. But there is little interaction until after we're through, when we'll get applause that is either enthusiastic or merely polite. With metal, though, we get what I call "real time feedback." If they like it, they're going to come closer to the stage, and they'll really get involved! And, of course, if they aren't really captivated, they'll just stand there looking at the performers, almost non-responsively. This gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I'm doing correctly – or sometimes, what I need to change, in order to do better. Thus, I can make these adjustments right then and there, and see the results from the stage on the spot.
Of course, the emotional palette of classical music is much wider and more varied, but I feel I've become a better communicator as a result of my experiences performing rock concerts.
STAY THIRSTY: Do you ever offer both on the same program?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I'm afraid that's really not something I'm interested in doing. If I'm going to play with an orchestra, I want to use my del Gesu and have that beautiful instrument at my fingertips. I simply cannot turn around, stick a boom mic onto the del Gesu, and play with a metal band – plus, I want to have that wider tonal range. Therefore, when I play one or the other, that's what I do. I have no desire to try some in-between hybrid.
Nevertheless, I should tell you about one fascinating experience. I was honored as the third recipient of the Great Performers of Illinois Award, and I ended up giving three concerts in one night. The first hour was with my baroque trio, playing on my Gagliano. We offered works by Handel, Corelli, and others. The second hour found me with the del Gesu, performing the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Illinois Symphony, and the third hour featured my metal band, with me on the six-string instrument. So, I took part in three separate concerts, which indeed happened to be on the same night, but there wasn't any real "crossover" involved. Of course, some of my classical audience, who might never have listened to a rock event, stayed to hear the band, and some of the rock fans, who might have felt awkward at a classical concert, came early to get a good seat, heard the Tchaikovsky, and loved it. Thus, I introduced some people to music they might otherwise never have listened to.
STAY THIRSTY: Still, it must have been an excruciating challenge to perform on three different instruments!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Actually, I have no problem switching from one instrument to another. On the other hand, it really was difficult to perform three concerts the same night!
Excerpt from "Hornpipe from Abdelazer,
Hole in the Wall"
- Trio Settecento
STAY THIRSTY: "Difficult"? I think "exhausting" also comes to mind. That said, I can't drop the topic of your metal band without mentioning one comment attributed to you.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: [chuckling] I can guess which one.
STAY THIRSTY: Go ahead.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: "If Paganini were around today, he'd probably be into heavy metal." It's probably true. He was an innovator, always looking for new possibilities. And he was an incomparable showman.
STAY THIRSTY: Indeed. Now, I also have a somewhat more serious quote of yours. "Kreisler was the male Maud Powell."
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Oh, yes; Maud Powell, my all-time musical hero! She lived from 1867 to 1920, and in her lifetime was considered the greatest woman violinist in the world, as well as the greatest American violinist of either gender. She was actually the first American-born violinist to achieve international renown. She premiered the Dvorak, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky concerti in the US – along with many others – and she was the first woman to form a string quartet whose members included men and women playing together. Powell also championed Black composers, living American composers, and women composers at a time when other artists simply weren't doing that. She was, in fact, the Victor Talking Machine Company's first instrumental recording star. It is not only her great artistry, but the values by which she lived her life that are so inspiring to me. She was America's best-loved violinist and one of the most successful artists. She could have just rested on her days off in-between concerts in big cities. Instead, she took up the role of missionary for classical music; she would find some small town in-between the major cities, and present that town's first classical concert, talking to the audience between selections, explaining how to listen to the music, grouping things by category – pieces from a given country, pieces based on dance forms, etc. – essentially engaging in "outreach."
STAY THIRSTY: Yes; she sounds so much like Rachel Barton Pine!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Also, many younger performers would send her letters –
STAY THIRSTY: …in those innocent days before e-mails and text messages –
RACHEL BARTON PINE: …and she'd take the time to write back to each of them, generously offering advice. She was remarkable! There is actually a statue of her in the Town Square of her birth town, Peru, Illinois, which is just an hour and one-half west of my home town, Chicago, and it's the only full-size statue of a woman musician in the entire US!
One can actually find some interesting parallels. She did her initial lessons in Chicago, as did I; she then studied in Berlin with Joachim, while I studied in Berlin with a student of a student of Joachim. Her husband traveled with her as her manager; my husband travels with me – although not as my manager. I should add that her husband pulled out a phrase from a review and established it as her slogan: "The arm of a man, the heart of a woman, the head of an artist"! I think that's wonderful!
STAY THIRSTY: Wow!
RACHEL BARTON PINE: However, she's really not that well remembered, and there are understandable reasons. Why do we remember Leopold Auer? Not because of his solo career – he would be just another forgotten soloist of that era – but because he was the teacher of Heifetz, Milstein, and other leading violinists. Maud Powell didn't live long enough to settle down and establish a pedagogical legacy. Why do we remember Jascha Heifetz? Heifetz lived well into the electric recording era, so far more people could hear him. When Powell died, recordings could not go longer than six minutes – and those were filled with the "snap, crackle, and pop" sounds that came with the existing technology! Why do we remember musicians like Fritz Kreisler? In large part because of their compositions that have entered the canon. Powell did many tasteful arrangements, but didn't write original works. I think these are the reasons why she was the most famous violinist in America for many decades, yet now she's virtually forgotten. Of course, there might be a little discrimination as well. She certainly overcame the barrier of gender to achieve what she did, but those who wrote the histories were perhaps less likely to include "the woman."
STAY THIRSTY: Still, without the students, the recordings, the compositions –
RACHEL BARTON PINE: True, but Maud Powell is an absolutely integral figure for anyone who cares about the history of the violin, or even the history of classical music in America. She can't be omitted without leaving that history incomplete. It is through the work of the Maud Powell Society, which I have been so happy to support, that her legacy will be brought back to its rightful place. Moreover, the values by which she lived her life hold such important lessons for artists, even today.
Excerpt from "Brahms Concerto, Third Movement"
- Rachel Barton Pine
STAY THIRSTY: I understand you were involved more directly with the composer.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes, indeed. In 2009, the Maud Powell Society published Maud Powell Favorites, a collection of 43 works transcribed by her or dedicated to her. I served as "music advisor and editor" on this project. Some of the pieces had never been published, and the manuscripts had in fact been lost, so I transcribed them directly from her recordings.
STAY THIRSTY: By ear?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes. And with some of the other works, we had the hand-written manuscripts, but these were unpublished, so I had to get everything into musical notation software and then make editorial decisions.
STAY THIRSTY: Your mention of the Maud Powell Society gives us an interesting segue to the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation. Please tell us something about that.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: My Foundation is in some ways a reflection of the challenges of my early years. I grew up in a household that was less than affluent; my father was frequently unemployed. Although I had scholarships, none of these covered the out-of-pocket expenses that violinists, in particular, encounter – sheet music costs, accompanist fees for the pianists, new hair for the bow, new strings for the violin, concert clothes, the expenses of competitions (beginning with the airfare and recording sessions)…all these things really add up. Fortunately, some very generous individuals were able to help me out along the way, but it was really "touch-and-go" for a while. Sometimes I actually wondered why I was still clinging to the belief that I was meant to be a violinist when the obstacles were so seemingly insurmountable. I believe the best way I can honor those who helped me is to help the next generation.
The Foundation considers three criteria: talent, financial need, and commitment to a career in music. Essentially, we support poor prodigies who want to become professionals! To date, we have assisted around fifty young artists.
STAY THIRSTY: When did this start?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: My future husband and I began it together in 2001 – hence, my maiden name!
STAY THIRSTY: One last comment on Maud Powell, who did so many arrangements. You have a book of your own arrangements, cadenzas, and encore pieces published in Carl Fischer's Masters Collection series, and you're both the first woman and first living composer to be so honored.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: I am truly excited to be in the same series as Carl Fischer's Kreisler Collection and Heifetz Collection. As thrilling as it is to know that others are playing my compositions, it will be an even bigger thrill if this volume inspires young violinists to take up the challenge and compose something of their own.
STAY THIRSTY: I certainly sympathize, empathize, support and applaud very heatedly on all fronts there! And I understand you are also working with other composers, one of whom actually wrote a lullaby, though not one included on your most recent release.
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Oh, yes! Mohammed Fairouz has written me a five-movement unaccompanied sonata, which I've recorded for a CD that has other works of his. The last movement is indeed a lullaby for my daughter. The middle movement is a lament for Egypt; it was written at the time of the Egyptian uprising. I often do it as a "stand-alone," even at school concerts, because it conveys so many emotions – from despair, to anger, to sadness. The first movement is inspired by Arabic vocal music; the second, by the long tradition of Arabic fiddling. The fourth movement is somewhat reminiscent of New York cabaret music – Mohammed lives in New York – and in a way, one couldn't follow that "lament" with anything other than a little humor!
STAY THIRSTY: And this CD is now available?
RACHEL BARTON PINE: Yes, with some of his chamber works. He's also writing a concerto for me. This composition will draw on a number of Arabic styles and traditions, particularly Arabic violin playing. The concerto will be premiered next year. It will be interesting to see the Arabic tradition finally incorporated into classical music.
STAY THIRSTY: It will also be interesting to see what other areas the amazing Rachel Barton Pine chooses to explore! Many thanks for your time, and the best of luck to you!