An Interview with Rachel Barton
Like many other twenty-two-year-olds, Rachel Barton enjoys heavy-metal bands like Metallica and Guns 'n Roses, hanging out with her friends, and peppers her conversation with enthusiastic "awesomes" and "cools." Unlike most other twenty-two-year-olds, however, the fire-haired Chicagoan also happends to play the violin like a world-class virtuoso. A familiar presence and local celebrity in the Windy City's music scene since childhood, even in a business teeming with barn-storming musical prodigies, Barton's assured technique and flamboyant playing seem destined to carry her over in a graceful transition from talented youth to successful adult musician. Since making her debut at the age of seven with the Chicago String Ensemble, Barton's steady career trajectory of recitals and solo appearances with orchestra have taken her across North America and Europe, including apearances with the St. Louis Symphony, Montreal Symphony, and Vienna Symphony Orchestras. Last February, Barton made her subscription-concert debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 under Neeme Jarvi's direction, which she repeated this summer with Jarvi's own Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
by Lawrence A. Johnson
The jump from widely acclaimed prodigy to seasoned musician is a tricky one, but the enthusiasm Barton conveys so well in live performance is tempered by a practical and realistic attitude, which in this very competitive business seems likely to serve her well. Despite her success and new high-powered representation with ICM, Barton remains refreshingly straightforward and unpretentious. Fresh from moving into her new digs in a toney Chicago lakefront building, Barton talked about music and her expanding presence on recordings, due in no small part to her new association with Jim Ginsburg's Chicago-based Cedille label.
Since a few days before we spoke, Barton had gone through a marathon editing session on her disc of Handel violin sonatas- the first fruit of her new association with Cedille- so we kicked things off there. Barton's Handel flies in the face of the current stylistic trend in Baroque music by playing a steel-stringed "modern" instrument, her beloved 1617 "ex-Lobkowicz" Amati vioin- if a 380-year-old instrument can be considered "modern." (Supporting colleagues on the disc David Schrader and John Mark Rozendaal play, respectively, a 1983 harpsichord reproduction and a restored 1740 Horil cello with gut strings.) "When I do a Bach concerto or anything on a recital program that is from the Baroque, I always use my Baroque bow," says Barton. "It's a replica, but it's your basic Baroque bow made out of snakewood. I would love to do some work with period instruments, but it's one of those things where, well, I don't own one. A lot of people buy modern-made, Baroque-style violins. Something like that would have about the same level of tone quality as a modern-made 'regular' violin or modern-style violin. Playing on the Amati- you know, I would rather just use it...You get spoiled by the (superior) tone quality. Until such time as I can buy a decent 'older' instrument, and have it converted, I didn't want to pick up one of those things."
Barton believes that, as Thoman Wikman of Chicago's Music of the Baroque once put it, the argument isn't so much modern instruments versus period instruments as "good instruments versus not-so-good instruments." "Right. I think in fact that is one of the reasons why people who aren't into the period-instruments movement will criticize the tone (quality). I think it's not because the insides are old-fashioned and the strings are gut, I think it has to do with the inferior quality of the instrument. If you were to take one of the great Strads or del Gesus and (convert it) to Baroque (style), I think people would have no problem with it. If I were to give a concert of solely Baroque music- like I actually will be sometime next year of the complete Biber Mystery Sonatas- then I would put some gut strings on my Amati and go even more toward that direction. But for the recording I didn't want to fool around with the intonation or tone quality."
The warm-toned, richly burnished sound of Barton's Amati is striking and distinctive, one that seems well suited to her flamboyant, full-bodied interpretations. "You can have a good instrument and a good player, but they don't always make a match," Barton explains. "This one seems to fit my personality really well. You can always insert your tone or your way of playing into any given instrument, but the tone colors that this one naturally produces are just really full and rich and very deep." In fact, Amatis are not known for their big volume, as Barton points out, and in many ways her instrument is unique. "It's very much not one of the soprano instruments of the style. Oh, sometimes on the G string, it has a 'cello-ey' sound- I really love that. It's unusual to have an Amati- especially one made that early- that's simply loud enough to be able to be heard with a modern symphony in a modern concert hall. So many of the early Amatis were actually gorgeous instruments, but they're only suitable for chamber music these days because they're just smaller. But this one is physically on the 'grand pattern' scale, which is very much ahead of its time. And then, volume-wise, it's also very, very large."
Barton is quick to give praise to [her] patrons who have the financial wherewithal to acquire the finest string instruments, and then makes them available to the top string players in the music biz, including Maxim Vengerov, Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, and Joshua Bell.....it is through.....her patrons Bob and Mary Galvin (and their daughter, Gail Ellis) - that she possesses her "ex-Lobkowicz" Amati, which is on long-term loan.
Smart, articulate, and unpretentious, Barton, however, is no pushover in interviews, keeping to the subjects she wants to cover and politely but firmly declining others.....
About the business of recording, Barton is.....candid and realistic, acknowledging that she has so far concentrated on rarer repertoire, with an eye toward filling a market niche. Indeed, her appetitie for off-the-beaten-track repertoire makes her a kind of Neeme Jarvi of the violin- a matter of, in her words, "looking in Schwann and seeing where the holes are."
More than the Handel sonatas, Barton's second disc for Cedille will certainly plug a repertoire gap, concentrating on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concertante music written by black European composers, "a really interesting project," Barton believes. "There are two French composers from the Classical period- Saint-Georges and Meude-Monpas- a Romance of Coleridge-Taylor from the English Romantic period and a concerto of Jose White who was a contemporary of Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps." Most intriguing is the Violin Concerto of the Cuban-born Parisian White, which was given its modern-day premiere by Ricci and recorded on a long-unavailable LP by Aaron Rosand. "His concerto is in F# Minor and it sounds very Wieniawski-esque, you know, very much of the period in a virtuoso style," Barton says. "It's going to be a well-balanced disc; and actually just those four pieces give a pretty comprehensive overview of the complete (black composer) (violin solo) repertoire from those two centuries because there was so darn little of it."
Barton, who has been playing violin since she was three years old, is no starry-eyed novice to the bottom-line concerns and competitive rigors of the recording business, and fails to understand why so many of her young colleagues leap in at the deep end with recordings of standard repertoire that have been done multiple times by the century's greatest musicians. "It's like everybody already has five versions of the Mendelssohn and why would they add another? And yet you still see a bunch of the new young artists coming out and doing these pieces. I don't know whether those are just for resume purposes and they don't even expect or care if they sell, or if maybe people still are buying it. It's a difficult judgment call...I don't feel I have to do a disc for those purposes. I'd rather do projects that are going to be sort of useful to the record collector...I feel that's a better use of my time."
Nor is Barton blind to the marketing and shmoozing required in the highly competitive music business, with her own Web site mentioned in all her press material. As one of a generation that is not knocking over furniture in droves to attend classical concerts, Barton believes it's incumbent upon her to do all she can to bring a younger audience to classical music. "When I travel to places where I'm going to perform, I actually go on rock stations as well as classical and talk stations to promote my concerts. I'll play some Metallica or a Led Zeppelin cover and then I'll play a Paganini Caprice and people will be like totally into it. They think it's awesome. I think when my generation thinks of classical music, they think of some of these slow pieces that you hear in the doctor's office, like the Pachelbel Canon and Eine kleine Nachtmusik and some of the overdone classical top forty. I think if you were to get them into a hall and have them hear one of the Mahler symphonies they would be absolutely blown away. I always try to point out that classical is not one genre just as rock is not one genre. There's an infinite variety within it and that surely one aspect of it or another is something that you might like."
On the other hand, Barton takes a dim view of some of the more questionable mass-marketing gimmicks some of her colleagues have used to get noticed, such as Vanessa-Mae's wet T-shirt or Lara St. John's cover photo wearing only her violin. "It's not something I would do to do some of these things- I guess there's one girl who is doing some electric violin stuff or (other people) criticizing classical as having outlived its time. I think clasical music as it is can be enjoyed by everybody without doing funky things like wearing weird clothes onstage or doing light shows. My attitude is that even though I've grown up in classical music, I've also listened to a ton of rock and popular music. I'm not any different than my peers and if I can also like classical music they can too. Why is it that I like it?- if I can really define that and explain that to them, then they can consider trying it out themselves and having an open mind."
As well as her new association with Cedille, Barton is also continuing her relationship with Dorian, which has already released a well-received Sarasate disc. Her next project for that label will also offer some infrequently encountered repertoire, in this case, two volumes comprising Liszt's complete music for violin. "A lot of it is late chamber music- very spare, almost impressionistic works, looking ahead to some of the harmonies that were used in that period, even though these were written slightly before," she explains. "And then, of course, some early virtuosic works- things that were originally written for violin and piano, including a Duo and a Grand Duo Concertant, as well as (transcriptions) and one piece that was originally written for violin and piano, called The Three Gypsies, which is really cool. Also some things that were originally songs or solo piano works that he transcribed himself."
"When Liszt did his own transcriptions it really wasn't a literal transcription, like others did of some of his works- the [Consolation] that Milstein did or whatever. It was really a reworking. He would use different figurations in the piano and sometimes add upon or condense sections or rearrange the order or sometimes add entirely new sections in the middle. So it was, sort of, his further thoughts upon the subject, so to speak, his continuing to explore his own compositions. And it's also nice because during that period, not that long after Paganini, a lot of pieces for violin that were termed sonatas really had lesser piano parts. The violin got all the licks. I mean, he writes violinistically very, very well, and it's very idiomatic and definitely has more than enough flash as well as beautiful melodies. But because this is by Liszt, of course, he writes very complex piano parts as well, so it really is a true collaboration, which is alot of fun."
Chicago music fans will be disappointed to hear that Barton has no immediate plans to release her own screeching, Hendrix-esque, heavy-violin-metal arrangement of the National Anthem- a musical slam-dunk last year when she opened a Chicago Bulls playoff game with it. However, her upcoming Cedille disc of "devil music" that is in the works should prove equally diverting. Besides the well-known items one would expect- Tartini's Devil's Trill, the Paganini Witches' Dance, and Bazzini's Round of the Goblins- Barton also plans to include the Sarasate "Faust" Fantasy, Saint-Saens own arrangement of his Danse Macabre, the Kochanski arrangements of de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance and Dance of Terror, the Ernst arrangement of the unaccompanied Erlkonig, and Milstein's transcription of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Also the three dances from Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat with Chicago Symphony clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, and closing with Barton's own arrangement of The Devil Went Down to Georgia!
"I performed a recital one year that happened to fall on October thirty-first, so I figured 'what the heck, why not,' and I performed all this stuff on that recital," Barton recalls. "Since then, a lot of people have said to me, 'Oh, when are you going to record that?' So I proposed it to Jim- I was a little embarrassed about it actually, because it seemed like such a silly idea- but he was totally into it. That's what I like about Jim- he's just so creative and so enthusiastic. But it definitely is not going to be a niche Halloween-oriented disc. It's really more exploring the concept of how the violin has always been used as the instrument played by the devil, as the sort of macabre instrument; 'Death, the Fiddler' has always been a literary theme, and you know all the famous stories of Paganini selling his soul."
Barton's deft had at cadenzas and her own stylish and droll arrangements lead to the question whether she's considered doing a disc of her own arrangements. "Gosh, well, I mean, it's intimidating to think of doing such a thing (when you think of) Kreisler and Heifetz and everybody else who's done such wonderful transcriptions in the past. I like to sort of exercise my creativity by writing stuff, but I feel that I don't have an original tune in me. Maybe if I had more music theory I could do it more easily...I can write stuff 'in the style of---,' but I think anything I would write that would be absolutely original would sound like a pale imitation of something else. I don't know, maybe I'm selling myself short...But transcriptions are just really a lot of fun, because I get to sort of put my personal touch on something."
Another future project for Cedille is an album with cellist Wendy Warner of the Kodaly and Ravel violin/cello duos, which, Barton notes, have surprisingly never been coupled together. That disc will also contain a Duo by Erwin Schulhoff, "a wonderful, wonderful piece," says the violinist.
While her dream is to someday record the Bach violin Sonatas and Partitias "just because of the religious feeling I always get from them, which is something very special," Barton's own preferences in home listening tend toward early music, Mahler, and her favorite heavy-metal bands. "Basically anything by any other instrument besides violin," she says with a laugh.
Though she finds the recording and editing process intriguing and enjoyable, Barton's first love remains live performance, where she finds an electricity and dynamic tension that the studio lacks. "I try to put a lot of performance feel into my recording sessions, but it's impossible to just have that last little spark that you get when there's a roomful of people watching you- the vibe that's going between performer and audience," she explains. "The magic that happens there you can't really create without the audience. You can get pretty close; but sometimes in a concert something will happen that you never thought of before, never practiced or never rehearsed. Something special will just happen with the way you shape a phrase, and that's the exciting thing about it."
"On the other hand, what a recording allows you to do is sort a different type of artistic exploration of the pieces. You get to not only sound 'perfect' [like] you can just have a perfect performance- good tone, good intonation, and everything else- but you can have it sound more ideal, where you have the exact, perfect tone color on each and every note, the exact amount of timing that seems to work really, really well. It's very artistically satisfying to put something like that together."
Future plans include waiting for the opportunity to someday play the Berg Concerto in concert somewhere- "It's all set, it's ready to go!"- and premiering a solo Sonata by Easley Blackwood next year, written in a Classical-style idiom. Yet while the Bach Sonatas and Partitas remain her favorite repertoire to record some day, Barton also confesses her love of barn-burning virtuosic showpieces, like the Paganini No. 2, with which she made her Chicago Symphony subscription debut last winter. "The Paganini No. 2 is so much fun, I'd like to get that down, along with some other Paganini works. I really like the way they're so flashy and operatic. As much as I like the pure-music pieces like the Brahms, I also enjoy myself doing these showy works. I think it's a consequence of my listening to the heavy-metal music- I like the very flashy pieces with a lot of showmanship and some cheap, heart-tugging melodies," she says with a guilty laugh.