Daily Bow: Rachel Barton Pine Fears No Paganini

Daily Bow LogoAthletes have the Olympics, marathons, decathlons, triathlons, and Ironman competitions: all feats of physical, mental, and emotional daring that push the limits of their abilities and endurance. Every profession seems to have their own version of these Herculean tasks (even accountants have tax season), and music is no exception. In fact, many composers and performers of centuries past have seemed to almost deliberately furnished players with sets of challenges to their abilities, whether it be the monolithic Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach, the solo sonatas of Ysaye, or any of the titanic Mahler symphonies. In string playing, though, one of the biggest challenges is that set forth by Niccolo Paganini, the devilishly talented violinist whose compositions were conceived to baffle, enthrall, delight, and–above all–impress the audience with his own spectacular technical command of his instrument. His set of 24 caprices for solo violin number among some of the most difficult pieces written for the instrument, even after centuries of technical development. Most violinists feel perfectly well-occupied with one, two, or even three to perform at once, and it is rare for a violinist to take on all two dozen of the diabolically difficult–and markedly unaccompanied–pieces.

Rachel Barton Pine, however, is in and of herself a rarity in the violin world. Her interests and expertise cross from classical to rock and back, and her background as a child prodigy has provided her with the skill and confidence level to take on exactly such a challenge. She’s playing all 24 caprices on her current tour, performing yesterday at Rockefeller University in New York and on May 6 in Northfield, Ill. She admits that the task is a big one and that the caprices, as she puts it, sometimes demand “contortions that almost violate principles of good ergonomics on the instrument,” but she is quick to point out that Paganini’s caprices are hardly flashy tricks for the sake of flashy tricks. The technical fireworks are “means to an end,” which is to say that Paganini’s langauge may have been that of physical difficulty, but his message was one that sought to underscore the myriad expressive possibilities of the violin. Indeed, as Paganini was one of the greatest proponents of the violin to have ever lived, Barton Pine seeks to continue his legacy through her performances of these complete cycles. Check out the video below to hear her thoughts on the undertaking that she thinks of as no longer scary, but fun–Paganini would approve.

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