Rachel Barton Pine opens up about tackling Mozart, becoming a confident composer, and being a mom
After working with her for the first time, Marriner praised Pine as “one of the most honest of violin players I have ever heard. And it’s a great attraction in this [project], there is no utter embellishment, everything is there for a purpose and musically speaking it makes such good sense with her.”
The violinist, who realized her calling at age three and debuted with the Chicago Symphony at age ten, brings a fierce individuality to everything she does: She is the only violinist to perform all 24 Paganini Caprices with spoken program notes, in one night in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Washington DC, and at the Ravinia Festival; she is the first living composer and first woman to be published as part of Carl Fischer’s “Masters Collection” with the release of The Rachel Barton Pine Collection; and her Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation is dedicated to supporting young, low-income string musicians by loaning them instruments and covering playing and performing expenses. In a phone interview, Pine discussed her approach to Mozart’s five violin concertos, how writing her own cadenzas helps her stay true to herself, and her role as a parent.
I understand the Mozart Violin concertos were your first performance after your daughter was born.
Three weeks after I gave birth to my nine-pound, three-ounce baby, I hit the road. It was the first time I’d ever done this concert, too. Doing the five Mozarts in a single evening was really a revelation because up till that point, I’d performed the five individually, particularly the last three, numerous times over many, many years and I have a certain approach to Mozart’s style.
I always strive to make each concerto come to life and be stylistically appropriate and interesting and so forth, but playing a cycle—whatever cycle that might be—really forces you to further define, in a more detailed way, what makes each individual work distinct.
I had to really decide what makes the characters of No. 4 unique and No. 3 somehow different. And it just took my interpretation to the next level. Now when I play a concert when I’m just doing one of the concertos, I play it better than I ever would have had I not had the experience of doing all five in the same concert.
So you went right back to work?
For somebody who tours probably 48 out of 52 weeks of the year, it really was strange to me at the end of my pregnancy—you’re not allowed to get on an airplane the last six weeks—so by the time she was three weeks old, I’d been home for nine weeks in a row. I probably haven’t been home for nine weeks in a row since I was 20 years old. I was ready to go!
People said to me, “Oh, are you going to stay home for little awhile while your daughter is new?” And I said, “Well, actually to me, home is hotel rooms. That’s where I live.” So going to a hotel with my brand-new baby felt like the most natural thing in the world. She seems to love it actually. When she was two and a half, we started her on violin lessons. Now I have added practicing mom to my daily activities. I have a much deeper appreciation for all the music moms, including my own, who make the time to do this with their children. It’s so interesting to get to know my instrument from the perspective of a parent of a new violinist.
Why did you decide you wanted to record the five Mozart concertos and how was that experience?
I actually had written my own cadenza for each of the Mozart concertos and felt like I had taken my interpretation to the next level. I felt ready to lay it down for posterity. I’m really excited. Gosh, I grew up listening to recordings of Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on LP and on the radio, and, of course, when I was ten, the Amadeus movie came out. And now it’s kind of like, “Wow, I can’t imagine someone I’d rather record Mozart with,” and I actually got to do it. That was a real dream come true. Sir Neville was 89 at the time of our recording session [in 2013] and he had more energy than anybody.
He had so many ideas to bring to the table and it was a really rewarding collaboration. The orchestra was so committed to making every detail not just sparkling clean and perfect, but really bringing the music to life, playing with so much expression and so much character. They tried to make every nuance very defined and meaningful. It was a fun and exhausting week.
How did you get Sir Neville Marriner on board?
My London agent was able to connect us and they sent him a YouTube video of me performing some Mozart and he liked my Mozart and said he’d do it.
I understand you’re a fan of Mozart’s operas and they helped inspire your interpretations.
I truly believe you can’t have a total understanding of Mozart’s concertos without getting to know his operas. I started watching those live from the Met when I was still in the single digits. It was one of the rare times my mom let me stay up to watch opera on PBS, and whether it was Don Giovanni or Magic Flute or Marriage of Figaro, it was so entrancing. And, of course, the  Amadeus movie might not be factually quite accurate, but I think the essence of what they captured is extremely true to life in the way that he had this dramatic flair that was exhibited so successfully in his operas and came so much from his life, whatever the details might have actually been. And seeing that, you realize that in the violin concertos there are so many little plots going on, somebody’s upset and then they’re happy again, you’ll have a romantic moment and then a cute playful moment and a stern moment. It’s constantly changing characters and bits of mood, and to play it pleasantly and not have that dramatic element doesn’t bring it to life. There are so many details that he did that were daring and cutting edge. We’re so used to the Mozart concertos that we don’t realize how progressive they actually were for the time.
What of your personality comes through when you play these concertos?
It’s a collaboration between the musician and the composer. I’m not being true to the music if I don’t think, “What might Mozart have intended?” But then that has to be coupled with “How do I feel?” So basically it’s like, “I think Mozart wants to be flirtatious here . . . . I think Mozart meant to be cute here . . . . I think Mozart meant to be aggressive here,” but then where I come in is, you know, my idea of being cute is going to be different than someone else’s idea of being cute. So that’s how it becomes both of us. And I have to bring my own personality, my own life experience, my own imagination—just like an actor has to conjure a scenario. It’s an interesting process and mostly rewarding.
Tell me more about the process of writing the cadenzas for the Mozart concertos.
Well the whole story of me writing cadenzas all goes back to when I was 17 and I was giving the modern-day world premiere of a recently rediscovered French violin concerto from the 1770s.
It had been performed in France by its composer, but not since then. So unlike Mozart concertos, where there are many cadenzas by great violinists, this violin concerto could have improved with some extemporaneous flourishes, but the composer left nothing written down. Basically, if I wanted to perform this piece, I had no choice but to write my own cadenza. But I didn’t feel any stress about it because I figured it’s not like mine is going to be compared to some great one that everybody knows by somebody dead.
If I do a mediocre job, oh well, who cares? But then after I wrote it, I discovered, “Wait a sec, I’ve been thinking about this all along.” So whether my cadenza is inherently good or mediocre or great—whatever arbitrary value you want to assign it—actually it’s more about the fact that my cadenza is the most authentic expression of my feelings about the concerto and it’s the most organically related to my interpretation and the most true to myself.
And so after that I realized, “Why haven’t I considered writing cadenzas for things like the Mozart concertos or the Brahms concerto or whatever? Only mine can be me.” So after that, I wrote cadenzas for everything.
When I was 18, I wrote my first Mozart one and then when I performed another [Mozart concerto], I wrote the next cadenza. The majority of the Mozart cadenzas were written between the ages of 18 and 21. I still feel comfortable performing the cadenzas for the Mozarts that I wrote awhile ago because I’m still me and I feel like my basic ideas of Mozart are still the same, even though my understanding of the detail has continued to grow and grow.
It’s commendable that you write your own cadenzas—and a lot of them.
Anyone can write their own cadenzas. I don’t consider myself to be especially gifted. It wasn’t that I was one of those composing performers for whom music was spewing out of me at every turn. I don’t compose on a daily or weekly basis—I try to compose when inspiration strikes or there’s a reason for it.
I’m not one of those composers who is driven to be a composer in the same way that I’m driven to be a performer. And yet, I think anybody who has spent his or her life playing music can write music.
All musicians have music in them that can be brought out. And so, people will say, “You’re good at composing, I could never do it,” but it’s just like learning to play your instrument—nobody sounds good when they first pick up the violin. But when we think about people who play well, we never say, “I could never do that.” We all know that if you keep doing it for awhile, you’ll get better and better. It’s the same thing with composing! All of us start out kind of lame.
My cadenzas for that French concerto are not the ones I’m most proud of. But then we improve as we do it more and more.
I really encourage any young person to try and write their own cadenzas because it’s going to be the best way for you to add your own personal stamp to the concerto and become that much more excited about the concerto—even the part the composer wrote. I mean it when I say, “If I can do it, anyone can do it!”