A Classical Inspiration

Man, I have been really lax on the posting schedule. I have all sorts of excuses that I could whip out, but let’s just stow those and get on with the music, because today’s artist is someone really special and I’m talking about two of her CD’s.

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Rachel Barton Pine: Modern American Virtuosa

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not particularly skilled in composing or even playing music. The only thing I’ve ever really messed around with is some demos of music making software that I used to mix together some sound samples to create a few simple tunes. Despite my inexperience with the more technical aspects of music, I can appreciate a good classical composition. But I think a lot of people feel ostracized by the genre because it’s stereotyped as being very exclusive and accepting of only those who are capable of understanding the complexity of the sophisticated orchestrations and who immediately grasp terms like “allegro” and “scherzo” without having to look them up in a dictionary. Classical music has traditionally been thought of as the music of the educated upper class and not us poor shmucks who can relate more to the down-to-earth stylings of rock and rap.

However, Rachel Barton Pine seems like someone who is trying to get classical music off of its perceived high horse and bring it to new listeners. Like most other Americans who were born in the mid-70’s, she grew up listening to rock ‘n roll, particularly heavy bands such as AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Anthrax, Metallica, Pantera, Van Halen, Slayer and Megadeth, or so her website says. She even talks about classical composers like Brahms and Joachim using rock terminology, saying that they “jammed together all the time.” It’s difficult to think of the stereotypical prim and proper classical violinist head banging to “Reign in Blood,” but that scenario speaks volumes of the accessibility of classical music and how it does not have to be some stodgy, old relic that only rich, elite socialites can listen to and perform. In fact, Rachel Barton Pine has created a charitable organization called the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation that seeks “to expand awareness of and appreciation for classical music,” to spread it to people who never really sit down and give it a listen or think it is within their means to perform it.

But as good as it is to talk about how great a spokesperson and humanitarian she is, for the purposes of this blog we’re more interested in the music. Is she a good performer? Definitely yes. She’s one of those child prodigies who started playing professionally when she was really young. The font of knowledge that is Wikipedia claims that her first major performance was with the Chicago String Ensemble at age seven.

Much more recently she released an album called Scottish Fantasies for Violin and Orchestra. A lot of love and research went into finding and learning about Scottish fiddle tunes and traditional Scottish folk music from the 18th Century that she could record for this album. This research started in 2001 and the album was recorded in 2004. This gives you an idea of how dedicated she was about finding the right material. But despite what the name of the album suggests, not all of these pieces are straight from the land of the Scots. In fact, the composers of several of these tunes, Bruch, Mackenzie, and Sarasate to be specific, were greatly influenced by Scottish folk music and included elements of it in their compositions. In Rachel Barton Pine’s renditions of these pieces, there is an obvious playfulness in many of the violin solos that exhibits what one would expect out of a traditional fiddle song. But when that frolicky tune is knitted into the delicate framework of a classical orchestration, the result is something quite unique. It’s very melodic and gentle, but it also has a sort of sing-songy quality to it, despite the fact that there’s not any singing.

Now this may be a rather odd comparison, but Rachel Barton Pine is a lot like Quentin Tarantino in the way that she chooses pieces to perform. Tarantino likes to pick really obscure songs that end up being really good and catchy, right? Well, look at Scottish Fantasies for Violin and Orchestra: that isn’t your standard classical fare. Whenever I listen to classical music on the radio or in waiting areas, it’s always something from Disney’s Fantasia or anything else just as well known, like one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. This may be ignorance on my part, but I have never heard of any of the pieces from Scottish Fantasies. I vaguely remember hearing of Max Bruch before listening to the album, but I could not have named a composition of his until now.

Rachel Barton Pine’s most recent album, American Virtuosa: Tribute to Maud Powell, makes this comparison to Tarantino seem even less ridiculous. This is someone that probably no one but musical scholars and true devotees of classical music has ever heard of. But according to Pine, Maud Powell was much like herself in that she was a self-appointed spokesperson for classical music and something of a humanitarian during her lifetime (1867-1920). For American Virtuosa Rachel Barton Pine performed 21 songs that were a part of Powell’s repertoire and have scarcely been heard since the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. So not only do we see the same nostalgic obscurity that Tarantino provides in his soundtracks, but each track sounds quite remarkable. These are forgotten treasures that have been unearthed and brought out for the enjoyment of all who desire good classical music. And they cover a wide variety of styles within the genre. In fact, “Deep River” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” are traditional African-American tunes that were transcribed into classical format by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Maud Powell respectively. And compositions like “Rocky Mountain Sketches,” “Up the Ocklawaha,” “Caprice on Dixie,” and “Fantasia on Sousa Themes” focus specifically on American concepts, inspired by various locales and feelings of patriotism. So there is definitely some newness and variety to be found within American Viruosa by those who have only experienced the likes of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

I try not to heap too much praise on the artists I talk about in this blog, but without any undue ass kissing I think I have found a new musical hero in Rachel Barton Pine. She is a talented artist and one who is active in spreading classical music to those who might have not have been able to appreciate it before. And you have to respect someone you manages to keep fresh a genre that is almost entirely dedicated to performing cover songs by musicians who have been dead for a century or more. Rachel Barton Pine is a thoroughly wonderful performer and I hope that you will come to appreciate her as much as I do.

Purchase Scottish Fantasies for Violin and Orchestra by Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine – Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 – II. Scherzo: Allegro
Rachel Barton Pine – Pibroch Suite, Op. 42 – I. Rhapsody: Lento
Rachel Barton Pine – Medley of Scots Tunes

Purchase American Virtuosa: Tribute to Maud Powell by Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine – Humoreske
Rachel Barton Pine – Four Rocky Mountain Sketches, Part II
Rachel Barton Pine – Nobody Knows the Trouble I See

You can also find information about Rachel Barton Pine at her MySpace page, her YouTube page, and Cedille Records.

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