Sweetness and might
Whether playing thrash-doom metal or centuries-old classical compositions, violinist Rachel Barton Pine's approach is charming yet gritty
At first blush, Rachel Barton Pine is a bit deceiving. Her smiling demeanor, bright red hair, and soft, pale complexion combined with a remarkable career as a violinist that commenced as an accomplished child prodigy in Chicago, can easily and quickly win people over.
On the other hand, if so easily charmed, you might even be shocked upon subsequently learning how she almost nonchalantly and fearlessly faces some of the grittier things in life—including the way she plays electric violin in the thrash-doom metal band Earthen Grave, or the way she overcame a serious commuter-train accident that caused the loss of one leg, severely damaged the other and, as a result, nearly ended her career when she was just 20.
In fact, it’s almost as if she feeds off the grit, secretly basking in the deception of the sweetness she otherwise radiates.
Pine, now 38, brings that dynamic to Sacramento on Saturday, January 12, when she’s set to perform with the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra at the Community Center Theater. She’ll also appear Sunday, January 13, at Sacramento State University with the Ariel Ensemble in a benefit concert for the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento.
Despite such modern-rock inclinations, Pine is emphatic about her approach.
“I would not consider myself a crossover artist,” she said. “My career, especially when I’m playing [Jean] Sibelius, is hardcore classical.”
There’s something about the way the word “hardcore” resonates in that sentence that sums up a lot.
Take, for example, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor Opus 4, a piece she learned to play in her earliest of teens. For Pine, first discovering its otherwise intense reverie and dark melodies made her feel like an excited kid let loose in a candy store.
“I like the Sibelius [piece] because there’s an urgency to it,” she insisted over the phone in a recent interview. “When I was 13, I finally got to study it after literally nagging my teachers to play it for years. They kept telling me I shouldn’t play it until I’m older.”
Barton said she’s convinced it was merely the notorious technical difficulties involved that kept her teachers from allowing her to tackle the piece.
“That slow melody in the first movement takes a special type of arm vibrato which requires actual physical strength, something you don’t really have when you’re a child,” she said.
For the Philharmonic performance, Michael Morgan will conduct a challenging program comprising the Sibelius concerto with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98 as well as a recent piece by the Bay Area composer Nolan Gasser.
Pine’s connection to the conductor runs deep.
“I’m an old friend,” Pine said. “He was the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony [Orchestra] when I was participating in its youth training program, [the Civic Orchestra of Chicago].”
Above all, Pine’s probably earned the right to downplay the more obvious paradoxes of her artistry and life, based on a closer look at all her accomplishments as a purely classical music artist. In further explaining her love for Sibelius, Pine takes care to note her interest in violinist Maud Powell, who performed during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Powell, Pine said, championed Sibelius “at a time when it was not popular to do so.”
Pine dedicated an entire album to Powell on her 2007 release American Virtuosa: Tribute to Maud Powell.
Of course, there’s more to her life than just music. Married to former minor-league baseball player Greg Pine since 2004, Pine is also mother to a toddler, Sylvia.
Her name serves as a testament to Pine’s existence as a musician.
“’Sylvia’ means ’woods,’ my last name is ’Pine,’” she said. “And my violin—my life—is [made] out of wood.”