Her classical music biography leads with the cities whose orchestras she's soloed with, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas, Montreal, Vienna, New Zealand and Budapest, among others. We also learn she was a child prodigy who made her solo debut at age seven and has worked with numerous famous conductors - Zubin Mehta, Erich Leinsdorf, Placido Domingo and Charles Dutoit to name a few. Hailed as “the most charismatic, the most virtuosic, and the most compelling American violinist of her generation,” her instrument is one of the most important in the world, the “ex-Soldat” violin made in 1742 by Guarneri del Gesu.
Yet like any young woman who came of age in the Nineties, violinist Rachel Barton Pine is equally inclined to talk about the musical loves of her life far from the sonatas and concertos she practices and which constitute her current professional life. She may have intensely researched the musical relationship between Johannes Brahms and violinist Joseph Joachim for her GRAMMY-nominated 2003 Cedille recording "Brahms & Joachim Violin Concertos," but when she says, "They jammed together all the time," we can see her rock sensibility shine through. She can reel off a list of her favorite rock bands -- AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Anthrax, Metallica, Pantera, Van Halen, Slayer and Megadeth -- as readily as she can talk about these 19th-century composers.
Rachel's ability to see the connecting threads in these very disparate musical forms makes her the perfect bridge between generations of music fans. She sees herself as an artistic ambassador, introducing the pleasures of classical music to legions of new listeners. In the process, she has broken through every possible stereotype people may have of a modern classical musician. Folks in her native Chicago have enjoyed her performances of the National Anthem at Bulls and Cubs games. She was one of the torchbearers in the 1996 Olympic torch relay and appeared in the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Atlanta - the same month she played at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. She has even opened at the House of Blues for Slash (from Guns N' Roses) and Sammy Hagar, performed with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (from Led Zeppelin), and numerous photos on her MySpace page show her hanging backstage with many of her favorite rock heroes. Those who have never visited a concert hall can see and hear her playing and talking about music on her weekly podcast and YouTube video channel.
When Rachel isn't on the concert stage, we can probably find her visiting schools across the United States, passing along her enthusiasm for the violin to the next generation.
"I love going to schools and talking to the kids," she says. "I always try to be accessible, from responding to fan emails to hanging around after my shows to sign autographs, and this is an extension of that. I attach visual images to the feelings of the music, using pieces like Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Or I'll play something and ask them to guess the story line, or ask them to make up their own stories using memories and emotions. The idea is to get them thinking about what the music moves them to feel. I've been doing this since I was a teenager because it's important to inspire the audience of the future."
"I also keep up with pop culture, the latest music and what's happening online," she continues, "and that helps me bridge the gap. If they hear I've hung out backstage with bands they like and then I tell them that those guys are into classical, that puts it on a whole new level."
Rachel’s passion for guiding the future of music has led her to create the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation, a charitable organization founded in 2001 to expand awareness of and appreciation for classical music. Current projects include an instrument loan program, grants for education and career, and the String Student’s Library of Music by Black Composers, a supplemental curriculum featuring music by composers of African decent from around the world. Rachel gives master classes everywhere she travels and serves on the boards of various schools including the Music Institute of Chicago. She recently received the prestigious Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award for her work in music education.
So how did it all begin? Rachel was three years old when she was struck by "older girls in beautiful dresses who were playing violin at church," and begged her parents for a violin: from the moment she picked up the instrument, there was no stopping her.
"Initially, it was the sound of it I loved," she recalls. "Its voice spoke to me as if this were preordained somehow. By age five, I knew this is what my life would be about: I was already defining myself by my instrument."
She grew up in a financially struggling household and by age 14, she was helping her family pay for the rent, groceries, and utilities. Home schooling gave her time to devote 8 hours a day to practice yet leave room for a social life. She made her earliest appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 10 and 15 and won numerous national and international competitions while still in her teens. The youngest person (at age 17) and first American to win a gold medal at the prestigious 1992 J.S. Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany, she also won top prizes in the Szigeti (Budapest), Paganini (Genoa), Queen Elisabeth (Brussels), Kreisler (Vienna), and Montreal international violin competitions. Closer to home, she has been awarded "Best Classical Entertainer" three times at the Chicago Music Awards, and has been named a "Chicagoan of the Year" by both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine.
In June 1994, Rachel released her much-heralded debut recording "Homage to Sarasate" with pianist Samuel Sanders on the Dorian label, featuring Sarasate's complete Spanish Dances and Carmen Fantasy. Her growing catalog includes eight acclaimed recordings on the Chicago based Cedille label, with many more in the pipeline. 2007’s “American Virtuosa: Tribute to Maud Powell” showcases the beautiful Victorian-era repertoire of America’s first internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso, and 2005's "Scottish Fantasies" with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra includes a duet with famed Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. A very popular CD on Cacophony Records, "Stringendo: Storming the Citadel," features her original arrangements of rock and metal classics, from "Stairway to Heaven" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Metallica’s “One." Another Cedille album, "Instrument of the Devil," is a classical follow-up to "Stringendo." Rachel heavily researches the repertoire that she records, often writing her own liner notes. One of her most celebrated projects is the groundbreaking "Violin Concertos by Black Composers from the 18th and 19th Centuries." Her next CD (schedule for release in September 2008) will feature the Beethoven and Clement Concertos with London’s Royal Philharmonic and conductor Jose Serebrier.
Her festival appearances have included Marlboro, Ravinia, Salzburg and Montreal (where she recently performed the entire Paganini 24 Caprices in a single evening). She's enjoyed numerous high profile collaborations over the years, including pairings with rock band Kansas, pianists Daniel Barenboim, Christopher O’Riley, and Christoph Eschenbach, baritone William Warfield, and violinist/fiddler Mark O’Connor.
"Mark has invited me to be an instructor at his Fiddle Camp every summer since 1997," she says. "Going to camp has been a fantastic opportunity to meet the other instructors, some of the greatest violinists in styles such as bluegrass, jazz, Irish, Canadian Celtic, Texas swing, and Cajun. Learning about these musical styles and the cultures in which they exist has really expanded my horizons. Knowing more about folk music and improvisation has also improved my understanding of the many classical works influenced by folk rhythms and melodies. I especially enjoy performing duo recitals with Mark. We trade selections back and forth -- Mark plays his music and I play classical selections influenced by jazz and folk (Ravel, Gershwin, Ives, Vieuxtemps, etc.). We finish off with some duets, including special versions of Appalachia Waltz and Mark's Double Concerto."
While Rachel is very serious about continuing to share her talents and love for all types of music with the masses, she also approaches every task, simple or complex, with a great sense of spirit and fun. "I totally love performing and the crazy lifestyle that goes with it, where I can finish a concert and then go to a local club and hear jazz, rock or Celtic music," she says. "I like exploring new places and meeting new people and learning about the unique flavors of all kinds of cities, even smaller towns that most people wouldn't find too exciting. I’m very lucky to always travel with my husband (Greg Pine, a computer entrepreneur), so I never get lonely on the road. It's all a great adventure. The ultimate reward is playing concerts for people, knowing that what I do is appreciated and affects their lives in a positive way."