Was Niccolo Paganini — that spectacular violin virtuoso of the early 19th century — the world’s first rock star?
The wild hair, the bad-boy mystique, the run-ins with the law, even the rumored devil worship — Paganini virtually invented the debauched-celebrity lifestyle, and lived it so intensely he makes modern rockers look like simpering ballerinas. He canceled sold-out concerts, led a depraved sex life (even after all his teeth were removed in 1828, he was still besieged by groupies), gambled away his money and perfected the gaunt, tormented-artist look — down to the all-black outfits he wore onstage.
But Paganini was also one of the most influential musicians of his time, and a series of 24 “Caprices” for solo violin that he wrote between 1802 and 1817 are a landmark of the repertoire. They’re a tour de force of virtuosity — double-stopped trills, left-hand pizzicati, torrents of ricochets played at blinding speed — and Washington audiences will get a rare opportunity to hear all 24 next Sunday, in an unusual two-part concert by the Rachel Barton Pine .
Pine brings an intriguing perspective to Paganini. At 38, she’s a fixture of the international concert circuit, and has been garnering rave reviews for her interpretations of everything from Mendelssohn to Chausson; her 2003 recording of the Brahms and Joachim concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra won a Grammy nomination.
But she’s also one of the more adventurous violinists around, and every month or so she swaps her concert gown for a leather corset, trades her 1742 Guarneri for a solid-body electric violin, and joins Earthen Grave — her thrash/doom heavy metal band — for hard-driving, head-banging shows in Chicago’s late-night club scene.
Which, of course, provokes the irresistible question: If Paganini were alive today, would he be playing shred violin in a thrash band?
“Hard to say!” says Pine, laughing over the phone from her home in Chicago. “Paganini’s Caprices have influenced all the great metal guitarists — many of them are great classical fans themselves — so if there’s one classical concert that metal-heads are going to love, it would be this one.”
But for Pine, the sensationalism of Paganini’s life is only part of the picture. The violinist had a more generous side, she says, and composed in a style that was more Italian bel canto than full-throttle romanticism. True, the Caprices deliver plenty of raw firepower — but their real beauty, she says, comes from their lush melodic writing, their complex counterpoint, and the vivid, unusual colors they evoke.
“His music is supposed to be played with a lightness, a gracefulness, a delicacy that you often don’t hear,” says Pine, whose performance will combine commentary about the works with their actual playing. “The crash-and-burn, muscular style is not how Paganini would have played his own music — it’s really a very refined and elegant style.”
Pine’s fascination with the Caprices goes back to her early childhood, when her mother would play Itzhak Perlman’s classic recording as a reward for her good behavior. Pine was already a budding violinist by then; after hearing her first violin concert at the age of 3, she had begged her parents for lessons and became, as she puts it, “a little obsessed” with the instrument. “By the time I was 5,” she says, “I was signing my school papers, ‘Rachel, violinist.’ It was my whole being.”
It quickly became clear that she was extraordinarily gifted. She made her professional debut at the age of 7, playing Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G Major with the Chicago String Ensemble, and at 10 was a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Home-schooled, she practiced eight hours a day, and listened to heavy metal at night to relax. By the age of 15 she had performed with over 50 orchestras, and her career was underway.
But it was a constant struggle — not just to play, but to survive.
“Our life was a little tenuous,” she says. “My father was unemployed for most of my childhood. Our electricity and phone were getting shut off, and we were always one step away from losing the roof over our heads.” She relied on scholarships and borrowed instruments, and even the clothes she performed in had to be scrounged. “We would go to the thrift store, buy old bridesmaids’ dresses and fix them up,” she says.
Her father eventually left for good, leaving Pine and her two younger sisters to be raised by their mother. But by 15, she was successful enough to become the family’s primary breadwinner, and two years later she entered the international concert circuit — where she promptly won the gold medal at the Johann Sebastian Bach International Competition, becoming the youngest person (and the first American) ever to do so. More prizes followed at competitions in Genoa (where she won the Paganini Caprice Prize), Brussels, Vienna, Budapest and Montreal, and in 1994 she released her first album, “Homage to Sarasate.”
But just as her career was starting to soar, disaster struck. Getting off a commuter train outside Chicago on a cold January morning in 1995, Pine became trapped when the doors closed on her violin, which was strapped over her shoulder. Pinned to the train, she pounded on the doors and yelled for help, but the train began to move forward — dragging her more than 300 feet before pulling her under its wheels, severing her left leg and mangling the other. She was 20 years old.
The horrific accident nearly killed her, and seemed likely to destroy her career. For months she couldn’t even sit up in bed, let alone play, and for two years she was unable to travel or compete. Recovery was slow and excruciatingly painful — she endured dozens of surgeries over the next 14 years — and it was almost 10 years before she could walk again without crutches. But she fought her way back — with a little help, she says, from Paganini.
“I’d always had this dream of playing the 24 Caprices,” says Pine. “But I thought I would have to take a sabbatical and devote myself to them, training to do all these diverse techniques at a high level simultaneously, and then being able to last from beginning to end without fainting.” As she recuperated after the accident, the Caprices seemed increasingly out of reach. But then she met Greg Pine, a former minor-league pitcher (and now her husband) who pushed her to take on the challenge.
“He kept nagging me and nagging me,” she says. “So I finally said, ‘Okay, I’ll start practicing and see what happens. What do I have to lose?’”
What, indeed. In the 18 years since her accident, Pine has picked up her career with a vengeance. She’s performed as a soloist with conductors from Charles Dutoit to Marin Alsop, launched the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation to help struggling musicians and released more than a dozen albums, from concertos and baroque chamber music to heavy metal. She’s been a torch-bearer at the Olympics, performed with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, played the national anthem at Chicago Bulls games, and collaborated with such rising young composers as Mohammed Fairouz. And physically — while she’ll always face some physical restrictions — she no longer needs the braces she used as recently as 2008, when she last appeared at the National Gallery of Art.
Then there’s Sylvia, her 16-month-old daughter, who’s been traveling with Pine since she was 3 weeks old, and has inspired the violinist’s next album: a collection of lullabies to be released this year. And how does Sylvia feel about Paganini — does she share her mother’s love of the 24 Caprices?
“Well, she’ll be in Washington with me for the concert,” says Pine, laughing. “She has to follow her food.”
Brookes is a freelance writer.
will be performing Nicolo Paganini’s “24 Caprices” in a two-part concert on Jan. 27. The first 12 Caprices will be performed at 4 p.m. at the Phillips Collection (where Eugene Delacroix’s portrait of Paganini will be on view); tickets are $20. The second 12 will be played at 6:30 p.m. in the West Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art. Admission is free.