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In new virtual series, violinist Rachel Barton Pine isn’t just playing, she’s also explaining

From her Chicago home, the musician is performing solos from favorite concertos each Sunday and discussing how they fit into musical history, and her own history.

Rachel Barton Pine discusses Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor with fans after performing it Sunday at her Chicago home.
Greg Pine

If 2020-21 were a normal concert season, violinist Rachel Barton Pine would be spending the bulk of her days each week on the road for concerts and rehearsals across the United States and abroad. But, of course, things are far from normal during the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world since March. The widely known soloist has been holed up in her Chicago home, doing some performances and masterclasses via the internet but nothing on a concert stage.

Beyond not being able to perform alongside other musicians, she has especially missed the violin concertos — her “old friends” — that have been a constant part of her life since she was a student. That’s the principal reason she conceived “24 in 24: Concertos from the Inside with RBP,” a series of live solo presentations from her home studio that stream at 3 p.m. Sundays through June 20.

“I thought it would be really fun for people to hear the solo part alone,” Pine said, “to hear nuances that they would miss if the orchestra were going. And just hear what I personally think about as I’m preparing and as I’m playing it.”

For the first 30 minutes or so of each one-hour program, Pine offers historical context on the composer and the concerto but spends most of the time discussing her personal history with the work and her approaches to practicing and interpreting it. She demonstrates passages she finds particularly tricky or ones that she especially likes — in some cases, revealing tidbits she has never shared before.

“The real challenge is what to leave off,” she said, “because, literally, I could easily talk about every measure and just go on and on for four hours straight. So, it was a question of what am I reluctantly not going to get into.”

It’s easy to imagine some artists being reluctant to push to back the curtain and open up about their feelings and personal challenges when it comes to the music they play, but Pine seems unfazed by such concerns. “There is a real value to this and the value outweighs any sense of exposure that I might feel,” she said. “They are also going to see me with the fully prepared version [of each concerto], so there is no embarrassment here.”

Pine made clear that she is not trying to do a “pale substitute” for a regular concerto performance with orchestra. “I thought this could be a different thing and give people a unique insight into what really goes on behind the scenes,” she said.

The series began Jan. 10, and Barton showed herself to be completely at ease, talking off the cuff with a few notes that she almost never consulted. Then after a brief on-camera warm-up in which she ran over certain passages, she dived into a performance of the concerto’s solo part.

“It was a lot of fun,” Pine said. “I wasn’t sure how it would be perceived, but it seems like what I hypothesized people would enjoy turned out to be the case. So, I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

The series is geared to anyone who enjoys the violin, but she especially hopes that students and amateur violinists find her comments useful. And, indeed, there were two filmed questions from two string students at the end the session, which she answered.

To choose the 24 concertos from the dozens she has performed during her career, Pine opted for ones she has played most frequently and ones viewers who are also violinists are most likely to know. Following those criteria, she ruled out, for example, Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto (1938-39), which she just started playing in 2019. “I think it is an absolute masterpiece,” she said. “I just love it to death, but I haven’t played it a number of times with a number of conductors and changed my interpretation over the decades. So, it wouldn’t be the same as the ones I’ve lived and grown with.”

Featured instead are well-known concertos by familiar composers including Ludwig van Beethoven, Max Bruch, Dmitri Shostakovich and Antonio Vivaldi. At the same time, there are few lesser-known selections, such as one by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799), the first known classical composer of African ancestry. She has performed it dozens of times as part of her Music by Black Composers project.

Pine began the series with Felix Mendelssohn’s oft-heard Violin Concerto in E minor (1838-1844) in part because it is the one that young violinists typically learn first. “The Mendelssohn seemed to fit the bill. It’s such a lovely, cheerful one. In retrospect, had I known what was going to happen in our country,” she said, referring to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, “I probably should have played something filled with angst against fascism like Shostakovich.”