Violinist  Rachel  Barton  Pine

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Rachel Barton Pine (born Rachel Elizabeth Barton, October 11, 1974) is an American violinist. She debuted with the Chicago Symphony at age 10, and was the first American and youngest ever gold medal winner of the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition. The Washington Post wrote that she "displays a power and confidence that puts her in the top echelon."

Pine tours worldwide as a soloist with prestigious orchestras, has an active recording career, and has run the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation since 2001, which provides services and funding to promote classical music education and performances.

Pine was born in Chicago, and began playing the violin at age 3 after being inspired by the example of older girls playing at her church. She debuted with the Chicago String Ensemble at age 7, and with the Chicago Symphony under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf at age 10. Her passion for violin compelled her to practice 4 or 5 hours a day as a second grader, prompting her elementary school principal to encourage her parents to begin home schooling, which allowed her to focus on her music, practicing 8 hours a day. Her principal teachers were Roland and Almita Vamos of the Music Institute of Chicago. At age 14, she began taking paid gigs playing at weddings and in orchestras, which allowed her to contribute significantly to her family's income as they experienced financial difficulties. Explaining how she managed, she says, "I put on a lot of makeup and pretended I was older than I was."

She attained notable success in a number of violin competitions, including winning the 1992 Johann Sebastian Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany. She also earned 2nd prizes in the József Szigeti Violin Competition (1992) and the International Fritz Kreisler Competition (1992), as well as awards from the Montreal International Musical Competition (1991), the Paganini Competition (1993), and the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition (1993).

Pine has appeared as a soloist with orchestras around the world including the Chicago, Montreal, Atlanta, Budapest, San Diego, Baltimore, St. Louis, Vienna, New Zealand, Iceland and Dallas symphonies; the Buffalo, Rochester, Royal, Calgary, Russian and New Mexico philharmonics, the Philadelphia, Louisville, Royal Scottish and Belgian National orchestras; the Mozarteum, Scottish and Israel chamber orchestras, and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic. She has performed under conductors such as Charles Dutoit, John Nelson, Zubin Mehta, Erich Leinsdorf, Neeme Järvi, Marin Alsop, Semyon Bychkov, Plácido Domingo, and José Serebrier, and with artists including Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Christopher O'Reilly, Mark O'Connor, and William Warfield.

Her festival appearances include Marlboro, Ravinia, Montreal, Wolf Trap, Vail, Davos, and Salzburg's Mozartwoche at the invitation of Franz Welser-Möst.

Her premieres of pieces by living composers include “Rush” for solo violin by Augusta Read Thomas, Mohammed Fairouz's “Native Informant” Sonata for Solo Violin and “Al-Andalus” Violin Concerto, and the Panamanian premiere of Panamanian composer Roque Cordero's 1962 Violin Concerto. In April, 2017, Pine performed solo violin with the Phoenix Symphony under the baton of Tito Munoz debuting the Violin Concerto, "Dependent Arising" by Earl Maneein (b. 1976). Her "American Partitas" is a recital program of suites of dance movements composed for Pine by Bruce Molsky, Darol Anger, Billy Childs, and Daniel Bernard Roumain written in response to the Bach Partitas for solo violin paired with their Bach counterparts.

In addition to her mixed recital programs, Pine has regularly given single evening performances of the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas, the 24 Paganini Caprices, and the complete Brahms Sonatas.

In 2015, Pine released her debut Avie Records recording Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos with one of her “musical heroes” conductor Sir Neville Marriner and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Pine grew up listening to Sir Neville and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields’ recordings and their performance on the Amadeus movie soundtrack. Studying Mozart's operas she gained an appreciation for the drama, playfulness and flirtation of his violin concertos featured on the new album. The recording also contains Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, recorded with violist Matthew Lipman, a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient.

Pine started exploring esteemed violin concertos and the concertos that inspired them with Brahms and Joachim Violin Concertos, recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Carlos Kalmar in 2002. Her 2008 Beethoven & Clement Violin Concertos, recorded with The Royal Philharmonic and conducted by Serebrier, offered the world premiere recording of Clement's D Major Violin Concerto.

Her 2013 recording with pianist Matthew Hagle, Violin Lullabies, debuted at number one on the Billboard classical chart. Pine's recording of Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries was nominated for a National Public Radio Heritage Award.

Carl Fischer Music recently published a sheet music book of cadenzas and virtuosic encore pieces composed by Pine, as well as her arrangements of other works for violin and piano, as part of its Masters Collection. Pine became the first living composer and first woman to be so honored. Pine has also edited a 4-volume collection of compositions associated with America's pioneering female solo violinist Maud Powell, many of which she has also recorded [CD shown below]. In 2014. Pine helped to accept a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award on behalf of Maud Powell, after successfully campaigning the Recording Academy for the honor.


Her musical interests extend well beyond classical to baroque, folk, Celtic, rock, and jazz. She regularly instructs at Mark O'Connor's annual summer fiddle camp, and in 2004 she released a CD in collaboration with Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser.

Pine performs chamber music as part of Trio Settecento with David Schrader and John Mark Rozendaal, and with the Jupiter Chamber Players. In 2015, Trio Settecento released Veracini's Complete Sonate Accademiche for Violin and Continuo. The Trio's Grand Tour collection of four CDs on Cedille Records takes listeners on a country-by-country of the European Baroque.

Her current principal instrument is the 1742 'ex-Bazzini, Soldat' violin of Guarneri del Gesu. For seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pieces, she has often used an unaltered 1770 instrument of Nicolò Gagliano I.

Her taste in rock runs to heavy metal, with AC/DC, Anthrax, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Megadeth, Metallica, Motörhead, Pantera, Slayer, and Van Halen being among her favorites. She has met and played with a number of these. In 1997, she released a heavy-metal-inspired recordings. “In practicing and preparing those songs, I discovered that a lot of the heavy metal I’d been listening to was some of the most sophisticated compositionally of all rock music, and very inspired by classical music,” Pine has said, “Then all these people in ripped jeans started coming to my concerts.”

In February 2009, she joined the thrash/doom metal band Earthen Grave, where she performs on a 6-string Viper electric violin. The band has shared the stage with metal bands such as Pentagram, Black Label Society, Mayhem, and Nachtmystium. The group released an EP, Dismal Times. proclaimed that Earthen Grave has "all the songwriting capabilities to make one of the best albums ever." and said "If the doom gods are with us, this band will stay around and continue to produce the kind of unique, powerful and thoughtful music contained on Dismal Times." Pine credits her experience playing in a rock band with improving her emotional rapport with her audiences.

Pine often brings a new twist to her coaching sessions with chamber music and youth orchestras, by incorporating orchestral versions of rock pieces into her sessions. For example, Pine offered the world premiere of her own arrangement of Metallica's "Master of Puppets" with the McHenry County Youth Symphony (Crystal Lake, IL) in November 2009. In May 2015 she premiered her “Shredding with the Symphony” program with the Lafayette Symphony, which features music from Shostakovich, Bruch, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Sibelius, and Paganini as well as Van Halen, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Rush, Nirvana, Metallica and Led Zeppelin.

Bill McGlaughlin called her a "musical Pac-Man" for her ability to take in and perform so many different kinds of music. She has often performed at schools and on rock music radio stations in an effort to interest younger audiences in classical music.

Pine was inducted as an honorary member of Sigma Alpha Iota in 2003 She performed at the music fraternity's 45th national convention during summer 2009 in Chicago.

On July 11, 2010, Pine gave a three-part performance at Chicago's Millennium Park as part of the Great Performers of Illinois celebration. After initially performing on baroque violin with Trio Settecento, she soloed in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and then switched gears again to perform in black leather on her electric violin with Earthen Grave. In conjunction with the event, she received the 2010 Great Performer of Illinois award.

In 2010, Pine participated in a tribute album titled Mister Bolin's Late Night Revival, a compilation of 17 previously unreleased tracks written by guitar legend Tommy Bolin prior to his death in 1976. The CD includes other artists such as HiFi Superstar, Doogie White, Eric Martin, Troy Luccketta, Jeff Pilson, Randy Jackson, Rex Carroll, Derek St. Holmes, Kimberley Dahme, and The 77's. A percentage of the proceeds from this project will benefit the Jackson Recovery Centers.

Pine started a foundation in 2001 to promote the study and appreciation of classical music, including string music by black composers such as Jessie Montgomery, Edward W. Hardy, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and Wynton Marsalis. It prepares music curricula on black composers, loans high-quality instruments to deserving young musicians, and provides grants to cover incidental expenses (such as for supplemental lessons, accompanists, sheet music, travel, competition entrance fees, instrument repair, and audition recordings) of students and young professional musicians. Another program, Global HeartStrings, is dedicated to supporting aspiring classical musicians from developing countries. In this effort, Pine has been aided by a younger sister, Hannah Barton, also a violinist.

In 2006, after being nominated by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Pine received the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award for her work through the foundation. She has also been given the 2012 Karl Haas Prize for Music Education for this work and her other education-related efforts.

A Stradivarius violin, the 'Arkwright Lady Rebecca Sylvan', was donated to the foundation by Joseph Sylvan in 2015.

In 2004, Barton married Greg Pine, a health care consulting firm CEO and former minor league baseball pitcher. They have one daughter.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

When we spoke in April of 1997, Rachel was just twenty-two, but she already showed confidence and understanding of her artistry.

Bruce Duffie:   First, tell me about the new record that is coming out!

Rachel Barton Pine:   My first CD was released in 1994.  That was Homage to Sarasate on the Dorian label.  Now, three years later, my second CD is about to released, and that will be Handel Sonatas on the Chicago’s own Cedille label.  There are actually eight sonatas and two single movements, and I play them with John Mark Rozendaal on the cello.  He is the artistic director of the Chicago Baroque Ensemble, and David Schrader is on the harpsichord.  It was a lot of fun collaborating with them.
BD:   Does it make you play better when you play with really fine musicians?

RBP:   One thing I found really impressive about working with John and David [left and right in the photo below] was their synergy.  They’ve been playing together for so long, and when I had played with them in earlier years, it was mostly in the context of a teacher-student relationship.  I have had lessons with both of them, very often for performance practice ideas.  So, they would jam along on my pieces with me, but we had never really performed together, or done any other kind of work.  Just the way they work together was not like they were two people.  They were one unit, and as such they were a true basso continuo.  I played off of that, and everything just really jelled.


BD:   Now are you ready to take your place as colleague?

RBP:   Yes, in terms of period-performance.  I wished I owned an actual re-Baroqued or a never-unBaroqued old violin.  I haven’t bought one of those modern replicas of the Baroque violins, because playing on the 1617 Amati as my modern violin, I have gotten spoiled.

BD:   Did you change your style at all?

RBP:   Oh, absolutely!  I have a very good instinct, and a lot of experience now at this point in my life.  So I can play along with any group and have a lot of input.  I actually used my Amati, which has been modernized and has steel strings for the recording.  I didn’t want to deal with trying to tune gut strings.  Maybe I’ll be brave enough to attempt that later on, but not at this time.  Recordings are hard enough as it is, but I did use my Baroque bow.  It’s a replica of a Baroque bow, made out of snake wood, that I got in 1993.  It was made in France, and I use it whenever I perform Baroque-period music in recitals or as an orchestral solo, even with the modern orchestras.  It’s just as loud as the modern bow, but it allows me certain tone colors.  Even though the orchestra is using their regular bows, there are so many solo passages and very idiomatic things that I have to do in my part, and this bow just makes it easier.  I could try to replicate a lot of these tone colors and effects with my modern bow, but the Baroque bow does it on its own.  So why not use it?

BD:   Do you find it at all schizophrenic going back and forth from the Baroque style to the more modern or romantic style?

RBP:   It’s like going back and forth between viola and violin.  When I was a little girl, I used to wonder how they could do that, but when I picked up the viola, I found it could indeed be done.  It
s the same sort of thing with violin playing.  I have some friends who do jazz violin, and rock violin, and blues violin, and country fiddling violin.  I do Romantic period, and Classical period, and modern.  I also do a little heavy metal violin on the side for fun!  I feel really lucky that I’m not a specialist in any one thing, because I like the variety.  If I’m doing an overload of Brahms, I throw in some Bach, and if I’m doing a lot of Handel, I’ll do a little Paganini to refresh my spirits.  Like food, you don’t eat the same thing all the time.  I like a lot of different composers, different countries, different eras, and just exploring music as much as I can.

BD:   When you’re playing, how much is the technical ability, and how much is the musical instinct that comes from you?

RBP:   The reason I like music so much, and the reason that I consider it so much superior to sports, is that it involves the emotional aspect, the intellectual aspect, as well as the physical aspect.  Those are the reasons that people like me did all those eight-hours-a-day of practicing in our rooms during our pre-teen and teenage years.  It was just to get all those exercises in our fingers, and develop our muscles.  That’s the physical side of playing the violin.  Then, whatever you want to do creatively and artistically, you aren’t limited by the physical side of things.  As far as interpretation, I first like to play a piece without listening to recordings ahead of time.  I just look at the score, and play it, and see what comes naturally and instinctively.  Then I take my Grove [20-volume Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie], and research the composer and the piece.  I analyze everything to death, and experiment a lot, and decide exactly how I think the phrases should go, and make all kinds of decisions.  Then I put it together.  Sometimes I completely figure out better things than my initial read-through, and sometimes I simply reconfirm my initial impressions.
BD:   Are all the final decisions the right ones?

RBP:   There is no right or wrong.  You can do completely what’s considered the wrong thing.  For instance, in Baroque you can schmaltz all over, and vibrate, and go up on the G string and slide.  You can do anything if it’s done convincingly.  If you do it the way you truly feel it, it’s much more successful than something which has been heavily researched but doesn’t have the weight of conviction behind it, and doesn’t have somebody’s personal feelings attached to it.  After making all these decisions, I go back and I see if it really feels good, and then, in the moment of performance I don’t think any more about the technique or any of the other ideas behind the piece.  I just go and feel it, and I have everything reflexive to back me up.  But especially with a live audience, spontaneous things happen, and there are always those magic moments that you could never have predicted.  That is what it’s all about, and why it’s so much fun.  The thing with making the CD is that it’s a completely different end of the spectrum as far as artistic expression.  As much as I try to put all the excitement into the performance there in the studio, or in the empty hall as the case may be, it’s impossible to quite have the extra spark that you have when the live vibe of the audience is happening.

BD:   [Quoting the title of the 1964 musical]  You need the roar of the greasepaint, and the smell of the crowd!  [Both laugh]

RBP:   Yes!  There’s just an energy that goes back and forth with the audience.  That’s why I can play in front of however many millions on TV who tuned in for the [Chicago] Bull’s Game.  I don’t even feel it because that’s so esoteric, and my imagination can’t quite carry me that far, which I guess is good because then I don’t get nervous about it.

BD:   Is there any difference in your preparation if you’re going to play the Star Spangled Banner at a Bull’s Game, or a Paganini Concerto with the Chicago Symphony?

RBP:   Well, the Paganini is longer, and has a few more double-stop harmonics...

BD:   But it’s the same kind of mental preparation?

RBP:   Every concert is important because every audience deserves the same respect.  Actually, I have to say the bigger the crowd, the more I like it!  [Laughs]   But the thing with the CDs is that you can have a perfect performance, where you have absolutely no out of tune notes, where every bit of tone that you produce is very, very pretty, and every moment is felt very intensely.  There can be absolutely nothing wrong, and it would be considered a perfect performance.  Yet, with the CD you can go one step further and have what you might call an ideal performance.  First of all, it really has to be that way because it’s going to be listened to over and over.  But also you can have not just a great tone, but each and every measure can have that ideal tone color, the timing, and the balance between the players of the ensemble.  There are all those little details, such as exactly how fast that one trill was, and how long it lasted.  All those things can be tweaked.  Not that I’m going to get as obsessive as Glenn Gould, but with this disc, because the company is located in Chicago, I was over able to go over to the Studio of Cedille Records, and sit down and help with some of the decision-making and the editing.  It was very educational for me just to listen to different takes, and to hear the opinions of the producer [James Ginsburg], and see how they might have contrasted with my own.

BD:   Will that make you get more involved in the editing process for future recordings?

RBP:   I think so.  I don’t think that chamber music is more difficult than orchestra performance, or more than a virtuoso solo disc, so I won’t need to do quite as much detailed listening for every single album.  But definitely I have a little bit more back-up knowledge, and will be able to know what it is that they’re listening for, and better describe what it is that I’m aiming at.

BD:   You’re finding out what they’re listening for.  What do you listen for?

RBP:   Sometimes I become so detail-orientated that I lose the flow, and it’s hard to go back and forth between listening for every single note, and then listening for how the whole thing is put together.  With splicing you lose some of the continuity that you would have if you were to leave it as it is from start to finish.  But you can try to get those splices into the flow that was originally created, so none of that is lost, and you’re only enhancing.  That’s a tricky balance, and that’s why we need the professionals.  [Ginsburg discusses this problem in his interview.]  I’m not a recording engineer, and those guys are.  I listen for a myriad of things, and sometimes there’s a compromise where you have to decide if you would rather have the tone, or the ensemble, or the balance.

BD:   You say you’re not a recording engineer.  You are a musician, but are you only a musician, or are you also a human being?  What is it that makes up Rachel Barton?

RBP:   [Laughs]  Well, I listen to a lot of Heavy Metal!

BD:   That’s all right...  I forgive you!  [Both laugh]

RBP:   Daniel Barenboim had a wonderful line about Jacqueline du Pré.  He said that she is not a person who happens to be a musician; she’s a musician who happens to be a person.

BD:   You’re trying to adapt to that?

RBP:   I started the violin at age three, and by the time I was five, I was signing my Kindergarten papers
Rachel Violinist, because there was another Rachel in my class.  I thought of myself not as one who plays the violin, but as a violinist.  So for me, it’s more than a career as the way I earn my living, or as a hobby, or any combination like that.  It’s really my calling and my lifestyle.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you put the violin under your chin, does it become a part of you, or is it still something that you are holding and controlling?

RBP:   This Amati and I have a very special relationship.  You can have a good violin, and you can have a good player, but they won’t necessarily make a good match.  We two just seem to fit together really well.  I’m constantly exploring its tone colors, and it does everything I want it to do as far as reaching further.  I’m actually very lucky to be able to play this instrument.  It was first loaned to me in 1992, through the Stradivari Society of Chicago, which is an international patron organization, and the only one of its kind in the whole world.

Founded in 1985 by the late Geoffrey Fushi and Mary Galvin with the encouragement of the legendary pedagogue Dorothy DeLay, The Stradivari Society is dedicated to the preservation and pursuit of excellence in classical music by identifying the world’s most promising young artists and uniting them with the superb rare, antique Italian instruments they need to help begin and sustain their professional careers thanks to generous patrons. The organization has assisted leading teachers, foundations, and ensembles with loans of great Italian antique instruments.

Besides Rachel Barton Pine, the Stradivari Society has helped launch the careers of some of today’s most brilliant and successful artists including Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, Vadim Repin, Midori, Sarah Chang, Frank Almond, David Geringas, Maxim Vengerov, Leila Josephowicz, Jennifer Koh, and Kyoko Takezawa, among many others. [Those listed have all been my interview guests, and the ones without links will eventually be transcribed and posted.  BD]

With the leadership and vision of Mary Galvin, Geoffrey Fushi, and Executive Director Suzanne Fushi, the wholehearted support of Robert Bein, and the contributions of generous patrons, what began with the loan of the “David” Guarneri del Gesù of 1735 to Midori in 1985 has grown to become the largest and most prestigious great antique instrument loan program in the world, and a valued resource to the classical music community.

BD:   [Feigning alarm]  You mean the Stradivari Society would have something to do with an Amati violin???
RBP:   [Laughs]  It’s just called that, but besides violins by Stradivari, they also loan Guarneris, and Amatis, and other great instruments.  My Amati was actually owned for most of its lifetime by the family of Prince Lobkowitz of Bohemia, who later in history were one of Beethoven’s patrons, and have always been great supporters of the arts.  It sat around their castles for about 350 years.

BD:   Now you’re under obligation to play all ten of the Beethoven sonatas!  [Both laugh]
RBP:   That’s actually quite a good idea, because it’s very possible that Beethoven had been to one of their castles, and they might have grabbed the Amati.  Perhaps one of his string quartets was premiered on it.  If only it could speak!  Then during the middle of this century, it came into the hands of an American collector, who stored it in a vault.  So it might have been played from time to time in the castles, but it was virtually unplayed for most of its life, and that means it’s in good repair, and nothing has happened to it.  On the other hand, these things were made to be heard.  Their voices were meant to be heard in the world, and it’s so wonderful that the Stradivari Society helps that happen.  The patron gets the investment of owning the instrument, and appreciates its being played, and yet by lending it to the artist, it’s actually healthier for the instrument, and increases its value, as long as it’s properly cared for.  Audiences get to hear it, and I get to play it, and especially with the CD recordings, it’s a way to preserve this wonderful instrument for posterity.

BD:   Is this the only instrument that you play?

RBP:   Yes, it is.  Sometimes I borrow my friend’s electric violin, the Amati is what I perform on.

BD:   Do you try other violins when you get a chance, just to see how they feel, and how they sound?

RBP:   Oh, totally.  I had a brief and fleeting relationship with a Stradivari last winter...

BD:   Did your Amati feel like you were cheating on it?

RBP:   [Laughs]  Probably it did!  I have such a tendency to adore my stringed instrument it’s not even funny.  But the Strad was a great instrument.  It was absolutely gorgeous, but somehow it just didn’t fit me as well.  Also, the bow is a lot of the color of the instrument.  I was listening to my Dorian recording, and then to the master-tape of the album that’s about to come out, and in comparing the two tone qualities, I wanted to hear the difference between the studio and the live hall.  The Dorian was recorded in a live hall, and the CD with the Handel sonatas was in a studio, and it was really impossible to compare and contrast because of the fact that I used the Baroque bow, which has so much to do with the tone.  We tend to forget that these days.  I recently bought a new bow to go with the Amati, and it was amazing what different qualities that different bows were able to bring out of an instrument.  Of course, a bow doesn’t create tone, but a bow brings out a different tone that’s in an instrument, so it’s always a lot of fun to experiment.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Let me ask you an easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

RBP:   Oh, gosh!  [Laughs]  You could write a thesis on this subject, but there are obvious answers that come to mind immediately.  I grew up in my church, and that was one of the first places that I performed when I played the violin in front of the congregation.  I was four years old, and that was wonderful because I got to have the support of everybody without any type of fear.  That’s one of the reasons I never get nervous when I perform now, because it was in a situation that no matter what I did, the love and warmth of the community was there for me.  My pastor always counseled me that music is a gift to be shared, and it’s a responsibility to work to improve upon whatever your natural talent might be.  The work is what matters, and you should really go with it.

BD:   Do you then put a spiritual quality into every piece of music that you play?

RBP:   Every piece of music describes different feelings.  Something like Paganini is just all about flash and flamboyance.  It is show-offy, and schmaltzy.  But with Bach and some of those things, there’s a certain core feeling to the music.  You feel that those moments of inspiration are really coming from somewhere else, and that everything you do isn’t just what you have to do about it.  First of all, you can’t be proud or conceited of any natural talent, because that was just your luck of what you were born with.  You can definitely feel good about the work that you’ve done, and the practicing that you’ve put in, and everything else, but music is really there to express things that go beyond words.  In every culture throughout the world, and throughout history, music has always had such an important place in the life of the people, because there’s just something about it that you can’t get any other way.  The way it moves you, and the way that you can use it to change what you feel, or to describe what you feel.  It’s amazing how intense people can get about music.  Even with pop music, it’s far less the lyrics than just the music.

BD:   This is the feeling that you get from it?

RBP:   Yes... I’m having a hard time explaining what I mean, because I can’t use the words here.

BD:   Sure.  Music is difficult to put into words.  If you could speak it, then it would be written rather than sounding in music.

RBP:   Right, that’s the thing.  Maybe some people can intellectualize music, and it’s not my way to just go and play a piece.  You have to have a little bit of fact backing it up to underlie what you’re trying to say with the music.  You have to just let the music flow through you, and really be open to it no matter how much you’re thinking about bow distribution, and intensity, and width of vibrato, and the perfect tempo, and all of those ideas.  In chamber music you have to match everybody, so you can’t always just let loose and do whatever comes to you.  You have to query it with the other people in a very close setting, more so than if you were doing it with a full orchestra, or a chamber orchestra.  Chamber music can be the most freeing, but also the most restricted form of music.  That particular type of music-making is the most difficult, because you have to be so incredibly detailed when playing with the other musicians, and that’s really challenging.  I always like playing chamber music as much as I can.

BD:   How do you balance these various aspects in your career?

RBP:   The chamber music is less career-orientated.  I don’t really make a lot of money playing chamber music, but it helps keep me grounded.  One of the things about music is that you continue learning throughout your whole life, and you can improve throughout your whole life, hopefully.  You might begin to deteriorate a bit, but you can sound better every decade than you did the decade before.  That’s the exciting thing about it.  Playing chamber music, whether it’s rehearsing with some friends, and getting a group to pull together in order to perform at a local venue, or whether it’s just having a reading session and listening to the other players, you try to match them and feel with them.  It’s very educational.  I learn a tremendous amount from it.
BD:   You were telling me your schedule, and it seems like it’s incredibly busy.  Have you got enough work, or have you got too much work?

RBP:   I’m very excited that I just signed with one of the top international managements, ICM Artist out of New York.  For the 1998/1999 season I’ll be going all over.  They’re going to represent me worldwide, so that’s going to be a lot of fun just to travel, and see places and a lot of people.  I will also have to practice and practice!  But I’m lucky because I just happen to like airplanes and hotels, and meeting new people, and visiting new places.
BD:   I was going to say to send me a postcard, but these days send me an e-mail!  [Both laugh]
RBP:   Yes, and I am on the web, and that includes e-mail.  It tells all about my recordings and performances, and all my reviews and articles are up on there.  I’ll be getting into soundbites as we update it further.  I have quite a number of performances coming up, as well as some other things around the country.  Sometimes I have the opportunity to do something a little bit outside of the usual recitals and concerto performances, such as when I performed at the 1996 Democratic Convention, and at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics in Atlanta.  I also have the honor to be one of three featured performers at the City of Chicago’s welcoming dinner at the Hilton for the new Cardinal.  The mayor’s office called me, and I was really excited about it.  It will be fun just to be there.  Unfortunately, I was forced to rearrange a performance that I was going to do at that exact same time.  It’s been moved to earlier in the day, and we’re trying to get the word out.

BD:   You can do both things in one day?

RBP:   Yes.  Actually, I’ve got two concerts this Sunday, one after the other, and I’ve a recital the night before.  This year I’m also doing a lot of recording.  I made my third CD this March, which is the Volume 1 of the Complete Works of Franz Liszt for Dorian Recordings.  I’ll also be doing 18th and 19th Century Violin Concertos by Black European Composers, which are obscure pieces, but it’s a really interesting project.  There will be two classical period composers from France, a romantic period concerto that sounds very Wieniawski-esque, and a Romance by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.  I found these pieces at Chicago’s Center for Black Music Research, which is the only such facility in the nation.  They helped me dig up this material, and it’s going to be with Daniel Hege and the Encore Chamber Orchestra.  Then there’ll be a virtuoso album of all Devilish music for the violin which will include The Devil’s Trill, the Round of the Goblins, Saint-Saëns own arrangement of his Danse Macabre, and unaccompanied versions of the Mephisto Waltz and Erlkönig.

BD:   We’ll play that [on WNIB, Classical 97] around Halloween!

RBP:   Yes, but it’s not really Halloween specific.  [In his interview, Ginsburg talks about the promotion of this disc, and a photo of the CD is shown.]  There are things like the trio version of The Devil
s Dance from A Soldier’s Tale, and the Sarasate Faust Fantasy.  There’s always been a theme in literature of the image of Death playing the fiddle, and that concept has always fascinated me, especially because it’s in such contrast to the fact that the violin is also thought of as one of the most romantic instruments.  Angels play the harp, but when you think of all of the famous love scenes, it’s always the swelling of the violin.  When you think about a candlelit dinner, there’s always violin music, and yet the violin is also the instrument of the Devil, not to mention the legend of Paganini selling his soul to be the greatest violinist.  That’s always been a concept which has intrigued me because of my Heavy Metal leanings!  [Both laugh]  But to have all these pieces together on one disc will just be a lot of fun.  They are also virtuoso works, and it will be a great encore album with a theme.

BD:   I’m glad you used the word ‘fun’.

RBP:   That’s what it all boils down to.  I have just as much respect as anybody else for the great masters, and am just as intimidated by the thought of putting my stamp on, for instance, the Tchaikovsky Concerto for posterity.  But playing the instrument, in the end, is really very personal.  You’re playing for the audience to share your music, and that really is the main point.  Even when you’re creating the music live in a concert setting, it’s very personal.  You have to get away from the fact that so many great artists have played these pieces, and that the composer is so revered.  You just have to have it be your own music in that moment.  The notes on the page are just print, and the composer was just a human-being.  Even if it’s your first time, people might have played it before you, but in a way it is the piece’s first time.  I always have that feeling when I explore repertoire, that this is it’s new moment, and whatever I want to do with it will work.  You can argue and argue, and a good debater can defend anything.  There really is no right or wrong.  There might be traditions, and there might be research, but I do with it what I want to do, and that’s fine.  If I can enjoy myself, the people listening to me are also going to enjoy themselves, and that’s what they’re going to take from it.  That helps cut down on the intimidation, and just opens things up.

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BD:   [Noting that she was just 22 years old]  Are you in the point in your career that you want to be right now?

RBP:   So many exciting things are happening in my career, with the recordings and the management.  I’ll be glad when I’m doing more world traveling than I am at the moment, but I’m easing into it.  I wouldn’t have suddenly wanted to go from what I have now to being dropped into the middle of a European tour.  I like the fact that I’m easing into it, because as much as music is my life, there is so much more to life.

BD:   Do you leave enough time for a personal life?

RBP:   I just moved into a downtown apartment, and I’m getting it all set up.  I’ll have fun with a lake view, and seeing my friends, and everything else.  I want to be really organized, and have everything all thought out when I start to be gone for so long, because I’m not going to have very much time to deal with stuff.  I will be improving my computer skills a lot, so that I’ll be able to do my everyday life by laptop on the road.  That’s really important.

BD:   Home will be where you visit once in a while.

RBP:   Yes, but on the other hand, there are so many bonuses to that type of a lifestyle that you wouldn’t get otherwise.  So it’s all a compromise, and we’ll see where I go from there.  I may get tired of flitting all over by the time I’m in my fifties.  Perhaps I will start the Barton Camerata, or take a concertmaster’s job, or I may take a few years off to have kids.  I know for a few artists it is quite tricky balancing taking your kids on the road, or taking a year off.  Maybe I’ll do some recordings that year.

BD:   It’ll all be planned by your agent.  You’ll have no choice!  [Both laugh]

RBP:   I can imagine my manager would say,
“According to our calculations, you must get pregnant now!
BD:   Talk to some of the opera singers, and see what they tell you.

RBP:   Yes, I suppose I’ll never have it as bad as that in terms of booking my life five years in advance, but I have a lot of faith.  A lot of one’s life you cannot plan out, and you just have to go with the flow.  I have a lot of faith that things that are meant to be will be.  You have to look at what opportunities are presenting themselves, and not worry too much.  Just do whatever you’re doing at the moment to the best of your ability.  You have to have a master plan that you can choose your behavior based upon, but you can’t trust that it’s actually how things are going to be, because there are so many variables you can’t predict.

BD:   Have a master plan, but be incredibly flexible?

RBP:   Exactly!  I’ll just practice as hard as I can, and do the concerts that come my way.  One of the things I’m trying to do that I’m really enthusiastic about is go on Rock radio stations, both here in Chicago and when I travel.  I will play a Led Zeppelin cover, or some other Rock arrangements on the violin, and then I’ll do a Paganini Caprice, and some other classical music.  People think that the Paganini is totally awesome, and a lot of people of my generation don’t realize how close classical music is.  They might have been exposed to a very limited amount of it in some context.  Perhaps they heard a slow Mozart melody in a doctor’s waiting room, and it didn’t really do much for them.

BD:   Isn’t there still a lot of peer-pressure to stay away from classical music?

RBP:   I don’t know.  Everything is so genre-orientated on the dial these days in the big cities.  When you get out into a smaller town, and there are fewer stations that will mix it up a bit more.  I remember listening in Europe to some of these stations where they would play a Heavy Metal song, and then a Blues tune, and then a Country tune.  It was pretty wild the way they mixed it all up with the different styles.

BD:   College radio stations still do quite a bit of that.

RBP:   Yes, definitely.  The college radio crowd is totally open to classical music.  It’s just that people are intimidated by thinking they need to know a lot to understand it or appreciate it, and they simply have not been exposed to much of it.

BD:   Having studied a bit of Metal really helps them with Paganini?

RBP:   [Laughs]  Interestingly enough, a lot of Metal bands come from a Blues background, and then a lot of Rock that was based on Blues.  Then they’re taking it far into the Heavy Metal style, but a lot of it has Classical influence.  Metallica is one group that listens to a lot of Classical music, and a lot of their chord changes are Classical patterns.  It is so loud and noisy, that you can’t really pick it out unless you know it’s there and you’re listening for it.  But I got some of their sheet music because I really wanted to see the very sophisticated structure.  In the group Megadeth, the lead guitar player studied with a violinist to improve his song reading and intonation.  The two guitar players in that group have amazing ensemble, and they play everything in harmony.  Its polyphony is really impressive.  Anyway, what I was alluding to is that people think Classical music is one kind of music, and Rock is another kind, and that’s really a preposterous thing.  There are probably a dozen radio stations each of which caters to a different kind of Rock music.  Each decade has its own sound.  You’ve got oldies from the 1950s, and Classic Rock in the
60s, and even within each of those you’ve got different types of things.  Theres R&B, versus the Beach Boys sound...

BD:   For you, music, is music, is music?

RBP:   I respect artists of any genre who do what they do to a very high level, whether it’s any type of World Music, or even stuff that I’m not naturally drawn to or listen to.  If I’m presented with a live performance, or if a friend plays a CD of something that’s done very well, I can enjoy it because of the mastery of the players.  For instance, I don’t really get into Country music, but there’s this one violinist, Mark O’Connor, who just made that CD with Yo-Yo Ma.  It’s very impressive.

BD:   Will this translate into more audiences for Classical if you play some Paganini on a Rock station?

RBP:   That’s what actually has happened on the few occasions that I’ve done it, and definitely here in Chicago.  Rock Music has all these different decades, and all these different styles.  Even today’s popular Rock Music is so varied, and it’s the same with Classical.  You’ve got many centuries that you’re playing, and many different instruments, and many different countries.  There’s such a huge variety, and somebody who might not like a Bach Brandenburg Concerto might like a Mahler symphony, or vice-versa.  Also, hearing it live is a different experience than hearing it on a CD, because of the acoustic of hearing the full orchestra.  The sound encompasses you.  I’ve gotten e-mails saying that mine was their first Classical concert, and they thought it was really cool.  My goal is to have it translated into people checking other classical concerts, not just coming to my shows.  When I played the National Anthem at the Bulls Game, that was another opportunity for a lot of people to just see the violin.  I did a Paganini-style National Anthem, and a lot of people said they didn’t realize that the violin was cool!  They just hadn’t ever seen one, or ever really thought about it, and when they saw it, they really said it’s neat!

BD:   There should be a website called Classical is Cool.

RBP:   [Laughs]  That’s a very simplistic way of saying it, but the general idea is to tell people to just give it a chance.  One of the things that cracks me up is a lot of these interviews with young artists who are classical soloists.  Either they or the interviewer will try to convince you that they’re normal, just like everybody else.  [Both laugh]  First of all, their normality is nothing to aspire to.  What is normal for them is all the hours of practicing, and our unique lifestyle.  They aren’t quite like the next person walking down the street, yet there can be some common ground.  As much as I’m into Classical music, I’m also a big Rock music fan just like my peers are.  Since I like the usual kind of music, why is it that I also like Classical?  Can I explain what it is that it does for me that’s so special, and can other people learn to feel the same way?  I think so, because a lot of Classical players or listeners, don’t ever actually listen to Rock music.  I feel that’s just one unique way that I can try to do a little outreach.  However, I don’t particularly care to encourage the Classical clients to listen to Rock music.  Rock is doing fine without them.

BD:   Does Metallica know that you like their group?

RBP:   Yes!  A couple of friends and I did a couple of Metallica tunes on the radio last time they were in town, and we got to meet them.  They heard us play, and they thought it was really awesome.  We’re probably going to put out a CD single of our Metallica arrangements, but that’s just on the side.  I definitely do not want to have anything to do with being one of those crossover artists who does alternative violin albums.

BD:   [Surprised]  So, there is something you won’t do!

RBP:   [Laughs]  I won’t go to an ‘easy listening’ concert.

BD:   Your recordings will probably show up in elevators sometime.

RBP:   As long as they’re getting played, but as far as the Classical side, I’m not going to start wearing wild clothes.  I’m not going to do any of these other things to try to ‘rockify’ classical music, or whatever it is that people are trying to do these days.  It’s okay just to know it is great, but people need to realize why it is great, and also even have a chance to be exposed to it.  A lot of people have never gone to a Classical concert.  They might have heard their high school orchestra if there was one.  That’s one of the problems.  High schools should have orchestras, but a lot of people have not gone to a professional symphony concert or recital, and seen a really good exciting performance.


BD:   You should talk to orchestral managers because they’re the ones that are getting very scared, and are trying to change things.

RBP:   Well, some of the innovations are good, such as on-stage verbal program notes, and pre-performance conversations.  Those types of activities are great, and I try to be involved with them as much as I can.  You get out on stage wearing your gown, and the men are wearing their tuxedos.  The lights go down, the conductor picks up the baton, and you play your concerto.  It’s the same as it’s always been, and yet I don’t consider classical music to be a museum.  People always say classical music is nothing but music by dead composers.  They’re mostly right, but what about Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), John Lennon (1940-80), Jim Morrison (1943-71), and Kurt Cobain (1967-94)?  [Both laugh]  They are all dead, so what the heck kind of argument is that?  It’s on a much-condensed timescale, but people are still listening to a lot of classic Rock bands from the
60s, and it’s still considered very current, and contemporary, and appealing to the next generation of teenagers.  Classical composers are usually decades older, but music expresses human emotions, and they will always be the same as long as we’re around.

BD:   People sometimes say,
Rock on! , but I can’t imagine saying, Classic on!  [Both laugh]

RBP:   The way these pieces are written, and as much as you study period-practice, the way they get at the core of human emotions is very timeless, and transcends its particular date of composition.  It’s interesting to read a lot of this history.  The harmonies of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto were considered discordant, and it was thought of as ‘that ugly modern music!’ 
It was really ahead of its time.  It wasn’t really music for the Romantic period because it only came into vogue slightly past that.  Bach was rediscovered by Mendelssohn, so all this new stuff really can’t be dismissed so lightly.  It just makes you wonder how we’re going to look at music written these days in another century.

BD:   Tristan and Isolde had almost seventy rehearsals, and was abandoned as being unplayable.

RBP:   It still is pretty darn difficult!  A lot of those opera parts are much harder than many concertos!

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

RBP:   Thank you.  This was very good.


© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded Chicago on April 27, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.