World-renowned violinist Rachel Barton Pine shares her unlikely passion for heavy metal

Rachel Barton Pine has built a reputation for being one of the most gifted and in-demand violinists on the planet, performing with orchestras worldwide. She began playing the violin at age 3 after seeing older girls play at her church in her hometown of Chicago. She debuted with the Chicago String Ensemble at age 7 and with the Chicago Symphony just 10 years old.

Yet, despite her child prodigy status, she has strived to make the world of classical music accessible to a broader audience than one might expect, using her passion for heavy metal music to inspire young music fans to give orchestral music a try.

On Saturday, Pine will be teaming with the Pasadena Symphony for two shows that will feature one of her favorite pieces to play, Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5.”

“Most of my performances are of romantic concertos like Brahms, but Mozart is a cross between chamber music and solo playing,” says Pine. “The orchestra is smaller — strings with a couple of winds — and it’s a much more intimate kind of collaboration where everybody’s part is important and intertwined. It’s really refreshing to get to play with the kind of lightness Mozart requires, and integrated solo and orchestra parts with constantly changing moods and characters.”

For the 42-year-old Pine, music has been a source of peace and transcendence throughout her life, helping her overcome the emotional stress of extreme poverty that resulted from her father being unemployed during most her childhood. She was home schooled, enabling her to practice eight hours a day and start taking on paid gigs performing at weddings and with orchestras by the time she was 14.

She was also the first American and youngest person ever to win the gold medal at the prestigious International Johann Sebastian Bach competition while still a teen. But in 1995, when she was just 20 years old, Pine was severely injured while riding a commuter train in the Chicago suburbs.

The incident was caused by the train’s doors closing on her violin strap and not having the safety sensors required to reopen the doors. As a result, she was dragged 366 feet before being pulled under the train and run over, resulting in one leg being severed and the other severely damaged. 

Pine survived the ordeal, eventually walking again with the use of a prosthetic leg, and after a two-year recovery process she resumed her career. She was later awarded $29.6 million in damages after winning a lawsuit against the Metro transportation agency and Chicago NorthWestern Railroad, and in 2001 she established the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation to promote the study and appreciation of classical music, including string music by black composers.

“I had a lot of challenges during my childhood where my father was unemployed for most of my student years and my mom raised me and my sister,” says Pine. “Things were very tenuous, not always knowing year to year how to keep going and where my next scholarship would come from.

“It took a lot of faith to keep going in the face of obstacles that were seemingly insurmountable,” continues Pine, a practicing member of the United Church of Christ denomination. “When I had the medical situation at 20, it was like one more challenge, and I was used to keeping going even when things were pretty dark.”

Pine has appeared as a soloist with orchestras around the world, including such cities as Montreal, Budapest and Vienna in addition to performances in Iceland and Russia. Married since 2004 to Greg Pine, a health care consulting firm CEO and former minor league baseball pitcher, she has one daughter who helps her maintain her youthful spirit.

Her passion for heavy metal also helps in that regard, and it’s a love she developed when “Santa Claus brought me my first transistor radio at the age of 10, and I started encountering music I hadn’t before.” Pine was drawn to the metal genre because it seemed like a completely different style than the classical music she had been rehearsing and playing in eight-hour shifts at that point.

“Metal was a way to experience something different, and in my 20s I started playing some rock songs on my violin, not as performance in a crossover sense,” says Pine, who plays electric violin as a side project with the thrash/doom metal band Earthen Grave. “I’d use it for outreach in interviews at rock radio stations where I’d play songs by Metallica and Led Zeppelin, then follow those with exciting classical music like Paganini, and tell people you can like both. It’s so rewarding to have people come up after shows and say, ‘It’s my first-ever classical concert and I loved it.’

“I like metal not because it was different from classical, but because it’s very close,” Pine continues. “I met my favorite bands and they said they were inspired by classical. There are a lot of listeners out there who like both, but one of my goals is to break down the barriers that people think of this as the country club crowd. It’s not true, though maybe they wear nice jeans to the show. It’s always more fun when you have a more diverse audience in the crowd.” 


Rachel Barton Pine performs with the Pasadena Symphony at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Ambassador Auditorium,  131 S. St. John Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $35 to $116. Call (626) 793-7172 or visit pasadenasymphony-pops.org.