After 25 years, Rachel Barton Pine continues to champion Black composers
Classical music may occupy the number one spot on violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s personal playlist, but close behind is Chicago blues. And growing up in Chicago — where different kinds of music naturally coalesced — influenced her approach to performance and curation.
“We had ensembles [in Chicago] like the Black Music Repertory Ensemble, the Chicago Sinfonietta, maestro Michael Morgan over at the Civic Orchestra of Chicago,” Pine explained. “So unlike a lot of peers from my generation… I knew [classical music by Black composers] existed, even from my younger student years.”
Then, as she came into her own as a recording artist in the late 1990s, Pine recorded an album that set her on a greater path. “Violin Concertos by Black Composers” was released by the Chicago-based record label Cedille in 1997 It was recently reissued with a new recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a piece that Pine said “really makes your heart soar.”
"Our lives are less rich if we don't have all the good stuff!"Rachel Barton Pine
“At that young age,” Pine recalled, “I sort of naively wasn’t even thinking of issues of social justice, or inclusion. I was just like, ‘hey, there’s this body of repertoire that has been under-recognized because of historic discrimination and bias.' And as a fan of the violin, I want to find all the cool violin pieces that exist!”
Following that historic release, Pine says she started getting requests for more Black music from her students and their parents, and other colleagues. So she started the Music By Black Composers initiative in 2001. Listeners and students can find online pedagogical volumes, a coloring book, directories of more than 150 historic composers, and over 300 living composers, including, Pine explained, “contact information, and websites. You can sort it by birth year, by gender, by geographical region, depending on what you’re looking for.”
She added, “We have everything from a podcast list, to presentation materials for school appearances to a list of children’s books with illustrations of children of color… or where [the book] might be a story about classical musicians who are Black.”
Still, despite the efforts to amplify the work of Black composers for two decades, until recently there was scant attention paid to the music by ensembles. Pine says it’s not because the music isn’t great.
“One of the concertos on my album is by an amazing Afro-Cuban virtuoso violinist named José White. He was born in Cuba, studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was a classmate and then a colleague of guys like Sarasate, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps. His music is every bit as beautiful and every bit as pyrotechnic as all those guys… why is this not one of the great concertos that everybody plays?" she said.
"And we all know the answer to that. But it’s kind of interesting that he’s both Black and Latino and he represents so much for so many. And yet for 25 years, I asked numerous orchestras to please program it. But nobody bit. Not a single group. At a certain point it got so despairing, I said 'I’ll know the world has finally changed if I ever get to perform the José White concerto that I recorded.'”
Remarkably, after a quarter century, that finally happened, in Arizona in 2021, and in Washington, in 2022.
“It’s been every bit as successful as I always thought it would be,” Pine said. “Audiences just absolutely go crazy for it. I’m really hoping that others, my colleagues, will learn it and add it to their repertoire.”
She thinks that audiences and orchestras need to trust one another, and that they’re going to get something great when they enter the concert hall, whether they recognize the name on the program or not. The result, she said, is more beautiful music for all.
“I think now there is starting to be a greater understanding by everyone who loves music that, hey, we’ve been denied this good stuff, and I think [there is] an excitement to explore and discover it.”