Rachel Barton Pine on the stories and secrets behind Berg’s Violin Concerto

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18min 31sec
Photo: Violinist Rachel Barton Pine
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine.

She also writes her own cadenzas to concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Paganini. She’s been a frequent guest on National Public Radio programs including "Performance Today" and "All Things Considered," and has appeared on NBC’s "Today Show."

Barton Pine is set to perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with the Boulder Philharmonic, playing one of her favorite pieces: Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. She spoke with CPR Classical by phone from her hotel in Boulder about what fascinates her about the Berg concerto, which she studied with Pierre Boulez and Richard Hoffman. Both men knew the composer, Barton Pine notes in her own program notes about the piece.

The concerto is, at least on the surface, a tribute for Manon Gropius, who passed away at 18 and was the daughter of Berg’s friend. Researchers also point to some of the subtleties in Berg’s score, and believe the composer was also mourning the relationship he was unable to have with an illegitimate daughter he fathered earlier in life.

Barton Pine also talked about why the violin concerto is ultimately an inspiring piece, and also touched on her side gig in a heavy metal act and what it taught her about performance.

On why Berg’s Violin Concerto resonates with audiences, and why it’s ultimately uplifting despite its grim subject matter:

“These things are universal to the human experience. We all experience loss and grief and the death of loved ones . ... Berg captures what we all feel so eloquently. And the fact that he moves through that -- (Berg) doesn’t leave us in a dark place. He expresses the absolute depths of grief and despair and horror but then he moves past that to a place of catharsis, of acceptance, of peace. It’s actually a very healing peace.”

On why the Berg piece appeals to violinists:

“Berg ... very much was paying homage to the violin’s history while still having an absolutely cutting-edge contemporary piece. And so he wanted the violin to be played in a very lush way when the music called for it, in these different Viennese waltz moments or the different melodic lines that are soaring. If you wanted to put in an expressive slide, you absolutely had Berg’s permission to do so.”

On her side gig as an electric violinist in a heavy metal band, and how playing for metal fans helped her grow as a performer:

“You have what I call real-time feedback where you know in the moment of performance exactly how much you’re reaching or connecting with the audience. And so I’ve been able to sort of hone my skills as a communicator. Even though the music itself is a little bit different, the way that you project what you’re doing out to an audience is universal to any type of music. … I’ve been able to bring those lessons with me to the classical stage.”

Rachel Barton Pine plays with the Boulder Philharmonic at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Macky Auditorium. The program also includes Symphony No. 4 by Johannes Brahms, “Blumine” by Gustav Mahler and Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s “Komm, susser Tod.” Barton Pine and Boulder Philharmonic Music Director Michael Butterman will also give a pre-concert talk about the program at 6:30 p.m.