It’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer immensity of Rachel Barton Pine’s accomplishments. The young Chicago based violinist has performed on stages all over the world in front of hundreds of thousands of people, released 13 albums, won countless prestigious awards, and played with musicians ranging from Placido Domingo to Jimmy Page. Yet throughout her career, Rachel has worked to demystify classical music and bring it to audiences for whom it has not been easily accessible. Groups as various as inner city children, sports fans, music students in developing countries, and even her fellow rock fans have been enriched by Rachel’s devotion to music and the infectious enthusiasm with which she shares it. She’s more than a musician – she’s perhaps the greatest young ambassador that classical music has today.
Ironically, it was the vision of the beautiful dresses being worn by violin students in her church that first drew Rachel’s attention to the instrument at age three. As she remembers, “I was attracted to how the girls looked and totally entranced by the sound of the violin.” Rachel asked her parents for a violin immediately, but was turned down; it was only after her parents discovered a violin teacher a few blocks away that they acceded to her wish to learn the instrument. From her very first lesson, it was true love. “As soon as I started lessons, that was it,” she recalls. “By the time I was five, I was identifying myself as a violinist. All I wanted to do was play music. I would sit in kindergarten and plan what I was going to practice when I got home.”
By age seven, Rachel was already soloing with orchestras and at age ten, she made her first appearance with the Chicago Symphony. She hit the competition circuit with full force, winning numerous national and international competitions while still in her teens. In 1992, at age 17, she became the youngest person and first American to win a gold medal at the prestigious J.S. Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany. Other top prizes followed in the Szigeti (Budapest), Paganini (Genoa), Queen Elisabeth (Brussels), Kreisler (Vienna), and Montreal international violin competitions.
For Rachel, her love of playing classical music exists on several levels. As she explains in depth, “I enjoy the sports-like challenge of it, mastering the techniques and the physicality of playing the instrument, and shredding on repertoire like the Paganini Caprices. I also like the mental and intellectual pursuit of learning the history of the composers and styles and analyzing the scores. However, the most rewarding part by far is the emotional release of playing and sharing these feelings with everyone in the audience. I believe that classical music has the widest emotional palette of any style of music in existence; it includes every possible shade of human expression. Classical isn’t just one kind of music – there’s something there for everyone, and there’s always something new to discover.”
Rachel also enjoys of many kinds of non-classical music, and it is her particular enthusiasm for heavy metal that has inspired her latest project. She elaborates, “I’ve loved metal since I was 12; it’s absolutely my favorite non-classical style, especially speed and thrash.” Rachel has released “Storming the Citadel,” an album of some of her favorite rock and metal songs, and she’s already had the opportunity to play with several rock legends. “I jammed with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page onstage in the late 90’s,” she remembers with a grin. “I know all the Led Zeppelin songs by heart, so I got to make eye contact with Robert a dozen times during the show. I also got to ask Jimmy about how he used to perform with a violin bow. In fact, most of the rock stars I’ve hung out with have told me that they are fans of classical music and consider classical to be one of their biggest inspirations.” Rachel is now in the process of spearheading a whole new genre herself. She explains, “Almost every kind of folk or popular music has been incorporated into classical compositions, but there hasn’t yet been much classical that’s drawn upon elements of heavy metal. So I’m commissioning composers who grew up loving the same bands as me, and I’m also commissioning rock musicians with a strong classical background to write classical violin pieces based on heavy metal. For example, Steve Vai is going to write a solo violin piece for me. I can’t wait!” Rachel’s vision is that this music will be played in both concert halls and clubs and will “introduce the magnificence of heavy metal to my classical fans, and vice versa.”
Rachel loves her life on the road, soloing with orchestras around the world and performing recitals and chamber music. She’s also immersed herself in the world of music education and charity, allowing her to give back in the same way that others helped her when she was a student. “I grew up in a financially struggling household,” she says, “and by the time I was 14, I was helping my family pay the rent, groceries, and utilities. I was able to get through because of the many generous people who supported me, and I’m committed to helping others in the same way.” As one of her many efforts, Rachel formed the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation in 2001 with the mission of expanding awareness of and appreciation for classical music. The REB Foundation’s current projects include an instrument loan program; grants to help young artists with expenses such as airfare to competitions, recording sessions for auditions, stage clothes and sheet music; Global HeartStrings, which provides basic classical instrument supplies to musicians in developing countries such as Haiti and Nigeria; and a curriculum featuring string music written by Black composers dating back to the 1700’s. “There’s so much wonderful music that’s been neglected over the years,” observes Rachel. “One of my goals is to inspire African-American string students to become excited about classical music and to learn that it truly is part of their culture and history.”
With an upcoming CD of the Beethoven and Clement concertos with London’s Royal Philharmonic, constant touring, her work on the boards of trustees of several music schools, her charitable foundation, and her heavy metal meets classical project, it can seem to the outsider like an overwhelming amount of work. Yet upon examining Rachel Barton Pine’s extraordinary life in music, what one comes away with is the indelible impression that all of this work comes from love – a love of classical music, a love of people, and a love of creating thrilling new ways for people to hear classical music. Her commitment that the music be emotionally, historically and financially accessible both to new listeners and to the classical musicians of tomorrow has created new possibilities for the music itself, establishing her as one of the preeminent ambassadors of classical music alive today.