Rachel Barton Pine: Classical icon and Rock Goddess


By Rob Tomaro
Arts Correspondent and Music Director of the Rock River Philharmonic Orchestra

On April 25 I will conduct the Dvorak Violin concerto in Beloit with Rachel Barton Pine. She is one of the most sought after soloists in the world and we are lucky to have her. But, here’s my favorite thing about her: she is a quintessentially American artist.

There are many wonderful American violinists who perform the concerto repertoire, so what do I mean? It is this: in classical music, an artist can become so immersed in the European-ness of its traditions that he/she tends to exist in a bubble, and removed from contemporary culture. This is understandable and even necessary in order to achieve the laser focus that the role demands; the perpetuation of a cherished art form rooted in the past, which is transplanted into the present. But Rachel has something that makes her unique, eminently appealing and, yes, a really American artist: she is also a rock star.

The classical world has been scratching its head trying to figure out how to make itself “relevant” (meaning cool) to today’s pop drenched audience. Every gimmick has been tried, but Rachel’s approach is seamless and authentic. In addition to being one of the best interpreters of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Beethoven, she also shreds heavy metal on her six-string Viper Electric Violin, assaying the canon of Slayer, Metallica and Ozzy Osborne. It’s not a stunt. It is part of who she is and she embraces all the music she plays from the same big, openhearted place. In a recent interview, she said that playing rock has helped her ‘open up’ emotionally to audiences, which is really cool. It also infuses her classical playing with a super charged energy that is undeniable in its audience appeal.

She is credited as being the first violinist to record “shredding metal” (ask your kid) on the acoustic violin, winning stellar reviews for her “Earthen Grave” heavy metal CD, which she recorded with rock heavyweights Ron Holzer, Tony Spillman, and vocalist Mark Weiner. Just recently, she released the complete Mozart Violin concertos with Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Talk about playing both sides of the street.

We live in a time when this is possible. She is a product of today’s hybrid, all-inclusive rainbow quilt society and it’s hard to imagine her dual focus would have been accepted even twenty years ago, when the classical world was even more hidebound and attached to its European roots. Now don’t get me wrong. I love the traditions. I love performing in white tie and tails. It makes me feel connected to the giants of the podium going all the way back to Wagner. But, keep in mind the struggles that emerging artists endured in the past. In fact, it wasn’t until 1958 that a major American orchestra appointed an American born conductor to become its Music Director. That was another groundbreaking innovator, Leonard Bernstein.

I’ve been trying to come up with an image that captures her sure-footed sensibility in both worlds, street credibility brushing up against the laurels from the Ivory tower of classical ‘respectability’. It might be this: check out her photo on the cover of her rock album “Storming the Citadel”. What other violinist can you name who has AC/DC and Metallica patches sown onto the cover of the violin case that holds her priceless 1742 (ex-Soldat) Guarneri. Yeah, that’s who she is.

So join us on April 25, when Rachel rocks the Dvorak. I just finished rehearsing with her. We realized we share a passion for Ozzy. She’s gonna bring her electric violin to the concert and I will bring my electric guitar. Could be a Crazy Train encore in the making.

Rachel Barton Pine will perform the Dvorak Violin concerto at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night, April 25 with the Rock River Philharmonic, conducted by Music Director Rob Tomaro, at the People’s Church on Grand Street in Beloit, Wisconsin. They will also perform the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor and the Overture to Don Giovanni by Mozart.

Tickets are available through the symphony office at 608 313-1200 or online at: Rockriverphil.org.

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