IN CONCERT: Beauty in Neglected Musical Annals
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine
When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
Where: Granada Theatre, 1216 State St.
Cost: $39 to $119
When Rachel Barton Pine makes her Santa Barbara debut at the Granada Theatre on Tuesday, as soloist with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the Chicagoan will no doubt demonstrate why she is considered one of the finer violinists of her fortysomething generation. She will be on display, stage front and center, as the focal point of an orchestral concert as she has many times, with such prestigious ensembles as orchestras from Chicago, Montreal, St. Louis, and elsewhere.
But far from merely soaking in the soloist spotlight, Ms. Pine is one of those musicians with a fascinating back story, and assorted side stories. Her program with early music specialist conductor Nicholas McGegan’s Philharmonia (presented as part of the milestone 100th anniversary season of CAMA) features her news-making version of the Violin Concerto of Franz Clement, circa 1805. The violinist essentially rescued it from obscurity and recorded it along with the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the far better-known piece which was inspired by and written for Clement, as violinist.
In other quarters of the ambi-ambitious violinist’s life, she has been actively engaged in a “Music by Black Composers Project” which has unearthed, recorded, published and generally celebrated music by more than 300 black composers dating from the 1700s through the 2000s. She discussed these passions, her love of heavy metal, and more, in a rangy phone conversation with the News-Press last week.
News-Press: You are headed out west for a short tour with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia baroque Orchestra. Have you collaborated with him and his group much in the past?
Rachel Barton Pine: I collaborated with Nick McGegan last season with a modern orchestra, the Pasadena. We did a Mozart Concerto together. I guess he likes my classical period interpretation and he invited me to join his group, which is a thrill, as I’ve been a fan for many years.
NP: Early music is one of many areas of fascination for you, isn’t it? Well, the Clement Concerto, from 1805, is early-ish music…
RBP: Well, it depends on how you define the term (laughs). It’s interesting. I was in a metal band at one point and we were talking about the interpretation of Black Sabbath, which was from the ’70s, and talking about what guitars and amps and things you would need to create a sound that was closer to their original compositions. It suddenly struck me that this is precisely the conversation I have with my friends when we’re talking about viola da gambas and harpsichords (laughs). It’s all about historic performance practice, whether measured in decades or centuries ago.
In any case, I’m really delighted that they picked the Clement Concerto, because of course, I made the first ever recording of it, back in 2008, when I paired it with the Beethoven (Violin Concerto). It’s such a historically interesting piece in that it was the inspiration or maybe even the blueprint for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, but such a beautiful piece of music in its own right. I have played it with a couple of orchestras, including the Netherlands Philharmonic at Concertgebouw, another early music stalwart.
That was a very historically informed interpretation. That was the last time I played it. This will be very cool with the whole (period instrument) orchestra using gut (strings) and tuned to 430 hz (a more authentic and antique tuning) and come even closer to how it might have been heard back in 1805.
NP: As a detour, I didn’t know about your metal connection. What is your link to metal bands?
RBP: Oh, my goodness. I’ve been a big heavy metal fan for as long as my age has been in the double digits. It has been a big part of my life, all the way through. I’m not in any way a crossover artist. I’ll do it as outreach. I’ll do a mixed classical program with Metallica followed by Paganini and Led Zeppelin and some Shostakovich. I do that before I appear with orchestras to introduce my fellow rock fans to classical and encourage them to come to the symphony a couple of nights later.
I had a brief stint in a metal band with some friends, playing an actual electric violin. That was just straight up metal. But that’s over and done with now, because I had a baby and life got too complicated, but we had fun for a number of years.
The Clement Concerto, that’s almost as far from metal as you can get, because one of the things that really defined his playing was this sense of elegance and the purity of sound. He used a lot of the soprano register and not very many double stops. There wasn’t a lot of sturm and drang.
It’s interesting to see how closely connected (the Concertos of Clement and Beethoven) are. The key is the same. The instrumentation is the same, with double winds and the occasional flute. The occasion (of the Clement Concerto premiere) in 1805 was the premiere of the “Eroica” Symphony. That’s why Beethoven was in attendance. It was the annual benefit concert of the orchestra for which Clement was concertmaster. On that occasion, Beethoven heard the Concerto that Clement had written for that concert and it was at that point that the two of them decided that, for the next year’s concert, Beethoven would write Clement a concerto.
NP: Much musical historian and detective work went into this project. Was this something you stumbled upon but then fell ever deeper into as you went? How did this start?
RBP: I’ve always been a research geek on the stuff. I wouldn’t call it a hobby, because it’s closely connected to my life’s work and my passion for performing. But give me a good doctoral dissertation with lots of footnotes, and that’s going to be my beach reading (laughs).
I’d always heard of Clement, as Beethoven’s dedicatee. There has always been a bit of misrepresentation of him because of this story of the premiere of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. It was going so well and Clement turned his violin upside-down and entertained the audience between the movements, with a kind of vaudeville playing. So that has always been, and still is for people who don’t know the real deal, an indication that Clement was not as serious a violinist as he should have been, because of these circus antics. People thought that it was because of his lack of artistry that led to the performance not going well in the first place.
But when you dig more deeply into it, you realize that, in fact, Clement was a very serious musician—which you can tell from reading contemporary sources as well as looking at his own compositions.
NP: To make an odd segue, you were talking about your “research geek” nature: is that, in some way, a driving force behind your epic “Music by Black Composers Project?”
RBP: Yeah. Basically, in ’97, I released an album “Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries.” I have put out 37 records at this point. Some of them have very common warhorses, like my album of all the Mozart Concertos or the Brahms Violin Concerto or what have you. Other albums have been interesting repertoire that you might not know of, like my album of the works for violin by Franz Lizst, which came out the same year as the Black Composers album.
It was repertoire that I knew and loved and wanted to record. Naively, I suppose, I didn’t think of the social justice element or anything else. It was just interesting, overlooked classical music that I thought deserved to be listened to and known. After the album came out, it ended up getting a huge response. I started being asked to sit on diversity panels and getting tons of correspondence and in-person requests from students and teachers, asking for repertoire from Black composers for violin.
Growing up in Chicago helped me know about this body of repertoire in the first place. Chicago is home to the Center for Black Music Research, the foremost such facility in the nation. We also have things like the Chicago Sinfonietta, with its diverse programming.
The first thing I did was to form my advisory board. I was new to this field, so the leading black music researchers as well as various conductors and performers who were familiar with this repertoire and various pedagogues, lots of heavy-hitters, were kind enough to join the advisory board. We formulated what exactly we wanted to do, which was to have pedagogical volumes, starting with violin and expanding ultimately to the other strings and other orchestral instruments, school orchestra materials and so on.
Finally, after almost a couple of decades of research, we just released “MBC Violin, Volume 1,” which is such a thrill. It’s not just the music, but biographies of each composer, complete with visual images. That was a lot of research in and of itself, trying to track down the copyrights, and then also history articles, about the all-black orchestras in America in the 1800s, which were kind of the equivalent of the black baseball leagues, or the fact that Frederick Douglass played the violin or Coretta Scott King played the violin.
This is really to combat some of the misperception that can exist in the African-American community that classical is somebody else’s music. That’s not true. It’s just that the history has been lost. The goal of the series, first of all, is to inspire and encourage African-American youngsters or people from other parts of the world-Afro-European, Afro-Latino-to help them become that much more educated about classical music and become performers and audience members of the next generation. At the same time, the idea is to normalize diversity for students of all races and methods. We also have women composers. So there is diversity on a number of different levels.
As the parent of a young, seven-year-old violinist, it has been super-fun to see my own child get excited about the music itself, not understanding in any way the significance of this mission. That’s the most important thing, the fact that it’s really good music that we all are missing out on if we don’t have it in our lives.
NP: Looking over your musical life, you abide by the traditional roles as orchestral soloist and chamber musician, but you also have various projects very much of your own devising. Is it important for you to keep that balance in check?
RBP: Yeah. You can’t do it all. I would dearly love to have a professorship, but I have chosen not to yet, because I feel like there’s a certain rigidity of schedule that that would necessitate. I love teaching. I get to do that on the road with masterclasses everywhere I go.
Musicians never retire. My plan is maybe to teach from age 75 to 95 or something along those lines (laughs). That’s my life plan. But in the meantime, I want to do everything I could for music education beyond the various teaching that I do on the road. That led me to some of these publication projects. I released my own edition of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas with a lot of supplemental material. Speaking of early music, I’m getting ready to release Volume 1 of the first ever, historically-informed curriculum for violin.
So that’s another project that I’ve undertaken. Never a dull moment.