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Violinist on a quest to spread classics

Music kept her going — through poverty, accident

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Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine

NEW YORK — Violinist Rachel Barton Pine is on a quest to spread classical music.

She goes on rock stations and plays heavy metal songs on her Guarneri violin, then throws in a little Paganini. She has established a foundation to help disadvantaged youngsters buy instruments and travel to competitions. And her albums often highlight not-so-famous composers whose works are worth knowing.

In 2000, she released a CD of charming concertos by black composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. A more recent album matched Brahms' Violin Concerto with one by Joseph Joachim, Brahms' close friend who is most remembered for his violin playing rather than his composing.

Pine's new album, "Solo Baroque," released in September by Cedille Records, has two of the monumental pieces of the solo violin repertoire — Bach's Sonata No. 1 and Partita No. 2 — and provides unusual insight into works that have been heard countless times. The album also presents unaccompanied works by two of his predecessors, Johann Paul von Westhoff and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, and a contemporary, Johan Georg Pisendel.

"Bringing music to people is a very powerful force in this world," Pine said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Music is what gets us in touch with our humanity. It's not entertainment. It's not something just to go and listen to just for fun. . . . Music is a very spiritual experience. . . . It's that motivation which has kept me going — all along."

Pine, 29 and recently married, knows what it's like to struggle.

She grew up in the working-class Chicago neighborhood of Irving Park/North Center. By 14, she became her family's breadwinner. Six years later, in 1995, she overcame a frightfully close encounter with death — she was run over by a train after the strap of her violin case got caught in a door and she got dragged to the tracks. She lost her left leg above the knee and suffered severe damage to her right leg. She sued Chicago's Metra transportation agency and won a $29.6 million award.

"Certainly my injuries and my subsequent recovery were big events in my life," Pine said. "But . . . I've had many obstacles all the way through trying to pursue my calling as a musician. And this was one more obstacle. Perhaps what I went through as a kid gave me the strength to face what I had to (to get) back to performing and try to keep myself cheerful in the face of great depression."

Pine was introduced to music at her church at age 3. "There were some middle school-aged girls . . . playing violin as part of worship, and they had on the most beautiful, long dresses," Pine recalled. "That's when I asked my parents for an instrument."

Using a rented violin, she began taking lessons from a teacher a few blocks from her home.

"My parents just let me join in on the fun that summer, thinking that it might be a casual hobby that I might stop by the time kindergarten got started, a little later. But actually, I just fell in love with it and became so passionate about, you know, music and practicing that by the time I was 5, I was signing my school papers 'Rachel Violinist,' and that had become my identity."

At 10, she made her solo debut with the Chicago Symphony, playing Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf.

Because of her unusual talent, and the time demands of practicing the violin eight hours a day, her grade-school principal suggested that Rachel be educated at home, and she began private violin lessons with Roland and Almita Vamos at age 10.

For her audition with the Vamoses, she played Max Bruch's concerto.

"It was very strong and it was very straightforward," Almita Vamos recalled. "I started to give her some suggestions, some musical ideas where she could have the phrasing, and I noticed she kept looking at her mom. And then I thought, 'Oh my gosh, am I going to have problems with this girl?' Then I found out that . . . when she got out (of) the lesson, she said, 'You see mom, I told you there was more to the Bruch concerto than what I was doing!"'

Rachel studied with the Vamoses through her late teens. She never attended a musical conservatory or even high school or college. Because her father had trouble keeping a job, she said, she provided for her parents and two sisters — who are two and 12 years younger — by playing weddings and in orchestras starting at age 14.

"I put on a lot of makeup and pretended I was older than I was," she said. "I was responsible for the mortgage, the utilities, the groceries, and there was so much pressure, growing up like that. . . . When I was 17 or 18, even if I had gotten a full scholarship, I certainly wouldn't have been able to be in school and continue to work enough to . . . support the family."

At that time, when she was 17, she became the youngest person, and the first American, to win the J.S. Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany. She also won competitions in Budapest and in Genoa, Italy, Brussels, Vienna and Montreal.

During her rehabilitation following the 1995 accident, she played her own virtuosic arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at two Chicago Bulls playoff games and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1996.

"People started coming up to me on the streets saying, 'Wow, I heard your national anthem and I never realized that violins were so cool,' " she said. "That really inspired me, by the fact that it's not that people don't like violin music but maybe that they just haven't given it a chance, been properly exposed to it."

So off she went to visit rock radio stations, bringing her fiddle and her vast knowledge of Megadeth and Mozart, Metallica and Mendelssohn, Robert Plant and Johann Pachelbel.

"I've been a big heavy metal fan since I was 12, groups like Pantera, Megadeth, Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer. . . . So it was very natural for me to go on these stations and talk about my favorite bands, and I think it helps break down those barriers for my peers — to hear that a classical musician can also like the music that they like."

On the Net: www.rachelbartonpine.com