Listen Up James M. Keller on the traveling woes of violinist Rachel Barton Pine
The Albuquerque-based New Mexico Philharmonic is now approaching the end of its fifth season, having risen from the ashes of the New Mexico Symphony shortly after that predecessor went bankrupt in April 2011. Although the roster of musicians largely carried over from the old orchestra, the Philharmonic is obviously operating under strict financial constraints. They can’t be blamed for wanting to begin their concert on April 30 at Popejoy Hall (on the University of New Mexico campus) with a fundraising video, but technical glitches kept sending the thing awry, and then the chairman of the board made a speech, and then they gave a plaque to the executive director, and so on. As a result, a concert scheduled for 6 p.m. didn’t get underway until 6:24 p.m., and I doubt that anybody viewed the organization as more professional for it.
Guest conductor Fawzi Haimor, who recently completed a stint as resident conductor at the Pittsburgh Symphony, proved a lithe and lissome presence on the podium. He opened the concert with a spirited reading of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. One wished he had not given quite so free a rein to the percussion, an instrumental family Brahms always viewed with suspicion; here, they swamped the rest of the ensemble toward the work’s end. In any case, the auditorium didn’t show off the orchestra to advantage, lending a harsh sheen overall and particular shrillness to the trumpets. Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, the Organ Symphony, benefited from markedly finer interpretation and execution. The first half of the opening movement snowballed in sweep and momentum, often pulsating with emotion. In that movement’s second section, which rather resembles an extended tenor aria from a French lyric opera, Saint-Saëns had the brilliant idea to have the violins, violas, and cellos sing out the tune in unison against the gentle murmuring of the organ. The string players rose to the occasion, achieving impressive warmth of sound. The organ was an electronic instrument that filled the bill perfectly well in that slow section but lacked the richness, volume, or attack to truly succeed at its famous C-major solo chord in the middle of the second movement, which in this incarnation can not have lifted any listeners off their seats. There was nothing to be done about it; an orchestra can’t just wave a magic wand and make a magnificent pipe organ appear. What could have been improved, though, is what followed immediately, the sparkling obbligato of arpeggiated chords played by piano four-hands as the strings announce the sustained notes of the chorale theme of the final section. The piano just didn’t cut through the strings, and thus was sacrificed one of the most magical moments of 19th- century orchestration. But on the whole, this was a worthy interpretation of a score that is both demanding and rewarding.
In between t he t wo symphonic works came Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with soloist Rachel Barton Pine. She offered an admirable performance — pure, precise, and robust in tone, secure in technical details. It was also a reading with a distinctive point of view, which Pine made clear at her entrance: the individual notes of an ascending dominant-seventh chord, each tone attacked via the same note an octave below, written as a grace note. Usually these grace notes are played quite short, serving principally to intensify the attack. Pine, however, made more of those loweroctave tones, drawing them out just enough to give them prominence as part of the melody. It lent this entrance an unhurried character, and that turned out to be a key to her clearly plotted interpretation. Her tempos were not unusually slow, but her approach to articulation and phrasing made the f low of the piece seem relaxed, never seeking out visceral punch. On the whole, her conception served the piece well, presenting it as an Apollonian monument, a piece allied with the Triple Concerto, its immediate predecessor in Beethoven’s concerto lineup.
Another aspect that lent exceptional interest was her choice of cadenzas. Beethoven did not write cadenzas for this piece, leaving them to be extemporized by the soloist, which was common practice at that time. He did write cadenzas when he translated this work into a piano concerto, and sometimes violinists adapt those piano cadenzas for their instrument (including input from the timpani, which Beethoven oddly included in the piano setting). But more often, they play the cadenzas written by violinist Fritz Kreisler, which were published in 1928. Now and again, a soloist tries out competing versions, of which more than 50 have been published through the years, mostly by master violinists. In fact, Saint- Saëns composed a set of cadenzas for this concerto, which he published in 1898, 12 years after he wrote the Organ Symphony. It would have been fun to use those in this context, but Pine did not disappoint by playing original cadenzas she herself had written, highly virtuosic solutions that were vast, beautiful, and played with native authority. To console members of the audience who might have been disappointed by not hearing the Kreisler cadenzas, she offered as an encore a scintillating performance of Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice for unaccompanied violin, a delightful, f leet-footed piece that Kreisler dedicated to another legendary violinist, Eugène Ysaÿe, who was one of his musical idols.
There was a back story to this concert. Two days earlier, her public- relations representative sent out word that “internationally acclaimed violinist Rachel Barton Pine was denied boarding her April 27 American Airlines evening flight #3542 because she
was carrying on the ‘ex-Bazzini ex-Soldat’ 1742 Joseph Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ violin, on lifetime loan to her from an anonymous patron. The plane was to take her from her hometown Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Albuquerque, NM for her engagement this weekend with the New Mexico Philharmonic.”
The account continued: “Pine was the first passenger down the jet bridge. However, the captain (who would not give his name to Pine) refused to allow her to board the plane with the violin case because ‘ its dimensions were not correct for a carry-on.’ Pine flies over 100,000 miles a year with American Airlines and has f lown the same plane configuration on numerous occasions, placing the violin case in the overhead compartment. Pine shared with the captain the American Airlines policy stated on their website: ‘ You can travel with small musical instruments as your carry-on item on a first come, first serve basis as long as it: Fits in the overhead bin; or Fits under the seat in front of you.’ According to Pine, the captain replied, ‘It is not going on because I say so.’ ”
Why, one wondered, was she traveling so early to this engagement? “She was f lying the evening of the 27th to attend events the next day with students in the New Mexico Philharmonic’s Young Musician Initiative program as part of her community outreach schedule. According to Pine, agents at the American Airlines ticket counter were very apologetic about the crew’s behavior and worked closely with Pine to locate and rebook her on a f light option that would get her to Albuquerque in time to honor her commitment to the young musicians. Rather than a direct f light arriving at 10:30 p.m. that evening, Pine took a 5 a.m. f light with a connection through Phoenix the next day.”
I’m impressed. By Pine, that is.
It has become a depressingly familiar story, this business of musicians being forbidden to take their instruments on airplanes or meeting with calamity when they do. In 2013, Wu Man, the world’s foremost player of the pipa (a Chinese lute), was unable to fit her instrument in the overhead compartment for a f light on US Airways (which was merging about then with American Airlines), so a f light attendant took the instrument and dropped it — accidentally, one imagines, but the neck snapped off, rendering the $50,000 pipa worthless. In 2014, Nicholas Kendall and Zachary De Pue, members of the ensemble Time for Three, which performed in Santa Fe a season ago, were denied entry to their f light on US Airways because they refused to stow their fine fiddles in the baggage hold — instruments that should have been allowed in the cabin according to the company’s policy; they struck back with a protest video that went viral. Cellists have larger instruments, of course, and many of them simply buy an extra seat for the cello. One who doesn’t — or at least didn’t — was the German virtuoso Alban Gerhardt, who toured with his cello in an extra-strong case he felt comfortable checking. In 2013, he traveled from Berlin to Washington’s Dulles Airport, retrieved the case to take through U.S. Customs inspection, and rechecked it for a continuing f light to Chicago. When he arrived at O’Hare, he discovered that the case had been gone through by TSA officials who had not replaced his 19th-century bow properly and managed to snap it in half when they closed the case. Value of bow: $20,000.
Pine herself has been similarly inconvenienced before. This past September, she and her family slept overnight on the f loor at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport because she was unwilling to gate-check her Guarneri into the luggage hold after US Airways informed her they could not accommodate it in an overhead bin. I can’t say I blame her. This particular violin once belonged to the 19th-century Austrian violinist Marie Soldat, who was a champion of Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Pine is fond of recounting that when it came time for Soldat to graduate to a top-level violin, Brahms himself hooked her up with a wealthy music lover who would foot the bill, and he personally selected this violin for the patron to buy for her use. Today there exist only about 135 violins built by Guarneri del Gesù, whose instruments have been the favorites of such violinists as Paganini, Kreisler, and Heifetz. They don’t come cheap; in 2012, a record was set when a Guarneri del Gesù from 1741 (the “ex-Vieuxtemps”) sold for about $16 million.
In Pine’s case, the April 27 incident was merely a matter of inconvenience rather than of destruction. It is possible that the American Airlines captain had a good reason to deny entry to her violin and its case, but it is also possible that he didn’t. Either way, he might have shown more consideration. Space must have been available, since Pine was the first passenger down the ramp. She projects a sweet personality, and it would be hard to imagine that she could have seemed threatening to the captain. It wouldn’t appear to have been a terrorism issue, since she obviously had cleared the TSA inspection point. Although Pine prefers not to speak about it, I want to add that doing what she does is a priori more difficult for her than it would be for most of us, since in 1995 a horrific accident on a Chicago commuter train mangled one of her legs badly and caused her to trade in the other one for a prosthesis. I mention it because, although the captain could not have known that his passenger was a famous concert violinist who was giving up her time in order to encourage schoolchildren in a state where educational resources are slender, he could not have overlooked that this particular customer was a middle-aged woman who was walking not quite as steadily as most people and he might have gone an extra inch to assist her.
That Pine caught a f light at five in the morning rather than disappoint the schoolchildren in Albuquerque seems characteristic. She takes her philanthropy seriously. In 2001, she founded the nonprofit Rachel Barton Pine Foundation to do a variety of good works. It is assembling and making available The String Student’s Library of Music by Black Composers, which aims to “be especially valuable in motivating minority youngsters to begin their musical education or to progress” — to quote the foundation’s website. It established an Instrument Loan Program that “allows young artists to benefit from the use of high- quality instruments that otherwise would not be available to them.” It offers Grants for Education and Career, which help young artists with unglamorous but necessary expenses like accompanists’ fees, travel costs to competitions, and audition recording sessions. It has developed a Global HeartStrings program to provide basic musical supplies — strings, rosin, reeds, and similar things that make instruments usable — for aspiring classical musicians in places where such materials are hard to obtain, such as Haiti, Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Notwithstanding the temporary friction in their relationship, it seems that American Airlines has a lot in common with Rachel Barton Pine. The company’s website includes a page titled “America’s Global Giving strategy” which states: “At American, we use our scale and connectedness to influence widespread charitable action through direct philanthropic contributions. … We refer to our charitable efforts, collectively, as Global Giving.” Then they spell out five areas in which their philanthropic activities fall, of which the very first is: “American Airlines Kids in NeedSM — Supporting children, their families and organizations dedicated to improving their quality of life.” It continues: “To achieve the most powerful impacts in each of our key giving areas, we integrate our corporate charitable initiatives with the efforts of our employees and customers.”
The international press has been giving American Airlines a good deal of publicity about what happened on April 27. Although it has been said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I would wager that William Douglas Parker, the chairman and chief executive officer of American Airlines Group Inc. (the world’s largest airline), might like to turn things around. Such a wonderful opportunity this would be for American Airlines to make a generous monetary contribution to the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation, which is carrying out exactly the kind of kid-friendly work the company seeks to support globally, not to mention that it would be an excellent example of integrating its charitable initiatives with those of its customers. In a perfect world, Mr. Parker might arrange for American Airlines’ check to be handed to Ms. Pine by the American Airlines captain who so fortuitously brought these two charitable enterprises together in the first place. I would ask Mr. Parker to let us know just as soon as plans fall into place, because we at The Santa Fe New Mexican are very eager to let our readers know about the happy ending of a story that began so shamefully.
It has become a depressingly familiar story, this business of musicians being forbidden to take their instruments on airplanes or meeting with calamity when they do.