Rachel Barton Pine became obsessed with playing the violin at age 3, when she heard a Bach partita in a Chicago church. She is far beyond driven now. Her violin case is plastered with stickers for Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica. Her encore at Saturday’s Lansing Symphony concert might be a Paganini caprice or Pantera’s “Cowboys From Hell.”Heavy metal and classical music have a lot in common — and not just the umlauts.
“The drama, the richness, the epic quality of it, the bombast!” Pine enthused.
Over-the-top drama and violins often travel together, it seems. Niccolò Paganini, a legendary virtuoso and rock star of the early 1800s, was accused of selling his soul to Satan in exchange for his violin prowess. Giuseppe Tartini, an earlier violin hero, wrote a fiendish fumarole of a piece called “The Devil’s Trill,” which came to him in a dream in which he sold his soul.
Drama is a mild word for Pine’s own life story, a real-life dance with the devil.
In 1995, on the cusp of a top-level international career, Pine was riding a Chicago commuter train on her way to give a violin lesson. As she was leaving the train car, the automatic closing doors grabbed the strap of her violin case and dragged her under. Her left leg was severed and her right leg was badly injured. She’s had over 40 surgeries since then.
Just three years before the accident, she became — and she still is — the first American and youngest person ever to win the gold medal in violin at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Bach’s home town of Leipzig, Germany.
It’s impossible to know whether Pine’s post-accident career, after a long and slow rehab, measures up to her early promise. But she’s riding the lighting with gusto, prosthetic leg and all.
“Going all over the world, soloing with orchestras — it’s what I love,” she said. “I want to do it ‘til I drop.”
Last weekend, Pine was in her element, playing the opening concert at an exhibit of Stradivari violins at the Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix.
She snuck out of rehearsal to peek at a big-screen film that will run throughout the six-month exhibit — a film of Pine tearing into a Paganini caprice. A woman stood nearby.
“I can tell that you’re a fan of heavy metal by the way you play Paganini,” the visitor told her.
“Not at all,” Pine answered. “This is the way I’ve always played Paganini, before I ever discovered metal. But all those metal bands were very influenced by him.”
On a recent trip to Berlin, Pine talked with Uli Jon Roth, the German-born lead guitarist of the Scorpions.
“He told me how he took a passage from the Brahms violin concerto and started using it in a lot of his shredding solos,” Pine said. “Eddie Van Halen started copying his solos, and everybody started copying Eddie Van Halen. Unbeknownst to most guitarists today, they’re playing part of the Brahms violin concerto.”
Pine’s gig in Lansing Saturday is not exactly a shredding opportunity: Max Bruch’s lilting “Scottish Fantasy.” (Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony and the “King Lear Overture” by Berlioz are also on the slate.)
But Bruch uses Scottish folk melodies, and that gives Pine a chance to put her own juice into the music. She’s been studying Scottish traditional fiddling with Alasdair Fraser, one of the greatest in the genre.
“Playing the concerto as a fiddler might play it is the best approach,” Pine said, adding that if you play it like a piece of German music, you miss the point.
Pine thinks of the “Fantasy,” written in 1880, as multiculturalism before multiculturalism became a buzzword. The piece was written by a German composer, based on Scottish tunes and dedicated to the great Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate.
Pine pines for the days of Sarasate, when fiddlers could get down with the peasants and regale the high-brows with equal flair.
“The same guy that was playing in a barn for a dance would be sitting in the local music society, playing Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi and Handel the next night,” she said.
Saturday, she’ll do things to Bruch she’d never do to Beethoven.
“I add some of the lilt, and even some of the Gaelic ornaments,” she said. “Once you get that traditional sound in your ear, you can’t not hear it that way. It’s really fun to bring the flavor of the pub to the concert stage.”
The concerto’s overall feel is lush and dreamy.
“The orchestration is really glorious,” Pine said. “His use of the harp really conjures up that Celtic world, crumbling castles and clans and things like that.”
Pine is still brushing aside ongoing fallout from her fateful accident, from physical pain to perverse sneers that her pressfriendly “story” has somehow advanced her career.
She’s a settled soul, owing largely to her husband, Greg Pine, and 4-year-old daughter, Sylvia. (She happily reports that Sylvia is digging Beethoven, Stravinsky and “Guys and Dolls.”)
She’s settled on her instrument, too, a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu axe of same year and maker as Paganini’s fiddle. Even hanging out at the Phoenix instrument museum last weekend, surrounded by priceless Stradivaris and such, hasn’t tempted her to stray.
“Of course, it doesn’t belong to me,” she said. “It’s on lifetime loan. But it’s my voice. It’s so much a part of myself that I don’t want to play any other violin. It’s like, once I met my husband, I wasn’t inclined to check out guys anymore.”
She also does a lot of outreach work, bringing classical music — liberally laced with rock references — to schools. At 10 a.m. Friday, she’ll pay a visit to Lansing’s Everett High School.
After winning a multi-million-dollar settlement from her accident, Pine started a foundation that has helped about 70 financially struggling young musicians so far.
Musically, she has tackled the heaviest classical repertoire there is, including a complete recording and live performances of Paganini’s 24 Caprices. Now she’s climbing the summit: Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas, with a CD out this summer. The Bach project brings her full circle, back to her first musical passion, sitting wideeared in St. Paul’s United Church of Christ as a tot.
“Bach has been an important force in my life,” she said. “That church is where I first encountered the violin and the music of Bach.”
The church even has an image of Bach in stained glass, up there with the saints.
“That’s where he belongs,” she said.
Meanwhile, she is looking for off-thebeaten-path projects like her recent disc of concertos by black composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.
And of course, heavy metal is still in her mix. This summer Pine premieres a concerto with the Phoenix Symphony written for her by New York violinist/composer Earl Maneein, who is even more into heavy metal than Pine is.
“It has influences of heavy metal, just like Bartok’s violin concerto is influenced by Hungarian folk music,” Pine said. “It’s the first of its kind, and I’m the violinist to do it. I hope to take it everywhere. Who knows? Maybe to Lansing.”
Masterworks 4: Scottish Fantasy
Lansing Symphony Orchestra with Rachel Barton Pine, violin 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23 Tickets start at $20 Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 487-5001, lansingsymphony.org