Virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine, ahead of Hong Kong debut, on being a hard-up kid with an obsession to master the strings

Concert marks the first appearance in the city for the star, who talks about her upcoming performance, an impoverished childhood and the horror of a train accident that severed one leg and mangled the other

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 5:44pm

It can take most people a decade or two to realise what they’re good at, but virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine found her calling a little earlier.

“I first heard the violin when I was three – there were some schoolgirls playing in a church, and I was absolutely intrigued by the sound of the instrument,” says Pine, by telephone from Chicago, where she’s based. “I begged my parents for lessons, and luckily there was a violin teacher in the neighbourhood. I started playing just for fun, but then I absolutely fell in love with it. I became obsessed by it, in fact.”

By the time she was five, the youngster knew that playing the violin was “what I was meant to do with my life”.

Pine’s talent at the instrument matched her love for it and the now 42-year-old has risen to become one of the world’s most renowned violinists. She will be making her Hong Kong debut on June 2, playing with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong and guest conductor Andrew Sewell.

The concert will include pieces by J.S. Bach, Vivaldi and contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Vivaldi’s Concerto for Viola d’Amore in D Major will allow Pine to demonstrate her skills on the viola d’amore, a baroque-era instrument that can feature six or seven strings, plus “sympathetic” strings that resonate under the neck and bridge.

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“The Vivaldi is very cool,” Pine says. “The greatest artists of the 17th century played the viola d’amore, so I have always been intrigued by it. I was able to start learning it about seven years ago. It’s known for its silvery voice. It’s a real brain-twister to play, but it has a beautiful tone, so it’s worth it.

“Vivaldi wrote eight concertos for it; I’ll be playing his D major concerto, which is one of my favourites.”

The abstract-sounding Tabula Rasa, written by Pärt in 1977 and featuring two solo violins and a prepared piano, is a contrast to the rest of the repertoire. “It’s a bit of a departure, as it’s from the 20th century, but it actually fits with the rest of the repertoire very well,” Pine says. “One of the things that characterises Pärt’s music is spirituality, and that is equally true of Bach. There is a spiritual element which infuses the work of both composers.”

We weren’t very well off in my childhood, and my family struggled ... It sometimes seemed impossible to pursue music in the face of these obstacles

Along with her orchestral work, Pine has always been interested in the solo potential of the violin. With this in mind, she released an album, Bel Canto Paganini: 24 Caprices and Other Works for Solo Violin, in May. The album is devoted to the work of famed master violinist Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) and gives Pine the opportunity to demonstrate her technique and mastery of tone.

Pine was born into a family with no classical music connections, and her success is down to her skill and hard work. At the age of 10, she performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the top three orchestras in the US. She joined the Civic Orchestra of Chicago – a training ground for emerging professional musicians – and by the age of 14 was earning enough money from music to support her family.

In 1987, she began to make waves internationally as the first American to win a prize at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig, Germany. Since then, she has achieved worldwide recognition for her interpretations of the great Romantic violin concertos – a particular favourite is Beethoven’s Violin Concerto – as well as baroque music, and has made some well-publicised forays into heavy metal.

Pine says she is excited to be making her debut in Hong Kong.

“The conductor, Andrew Sewell, is an old friend, and he is also my daughter’s godfather, and that’s a nice connection,” she says.

“Amelia Chan [the concertmaster] is also an old friend, from when she was concertmaster at the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.”

The violinist is noted for her inclusiveness and generosity in musical circles. Her impoverished background, in which her father struggled to afford the petrol to drive to her violin lessons when she was a child, has led to a down-to-earth attitude, she says.

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Pine says the struggles she experienced in childhood helped her to cope with the horrific train accident she had in 1995. The strap of her violin case got caught in the doors of a Chicago Metra commuter train as she exited, leading to her being dragged along and then pulled under the wheels. One leg was severed, the other leg mangled. She put her career on hold for two years while she recovered.

“When I was injured, it was not as life-changing as people think,” she says. “It was yet another challenge that I had to work through. I figured that I had already gone through a lot, and I could get through it.

“We weren’t very well off in my childhood, and my family struggled. There were weeks when we weren’t sure if we had enough money for groceries. It was very tenuous. It sometimes seemed impossible to pursue music in the face of these obstacles; it was a struggle.

“I just had to believe that, even in the face of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I was born to be a violinist. I just worked as hard as I could. Thanks to the generosity of all the people who supported me on the way, I was able to achieve my dreams.”

Rachel Barton Pine with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, 8pm, City Hall, 5 Edinburgh Place, Central, HK$200-HK$400, Urbtix