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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This year, Grammy Lifetime Achievement awards are going to bands like the Beatles and the Isley Brothers - long overdue you can say, but they look like young punks next to another Lifetime Achievement recipient: Maud Powell.

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MARTIN: Powell was born in Illinois in 1867. She picked up the violin as a young child and really never put it down. At the turn of the 20th century, classical music in America was scoffed at by Europeans. Powell became the first American-born violinist - man or woman - to change that by winning over European audiences.

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MARTIN: She toured, playing her violin for audiences across this country. In those days, if a woman made music, she usually played the piano, and she did it in parlor rooms or at dinner parties - not in the spotlight on a stage.

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MARTIN: Rachel Barton Pine is a violinist who has long been inspired by Maud Powell. Pine even released her own tribute recordings of Powell's work. And she's one of the people accepting the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award on Powell's behalf. Maud Powell died in 1920. Rachel Barton Pine joins us now from Los Angeles to talk about Maud Powell. Welcome to the show.

RACHEL BARTON PINE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, you have said that she is the violinist you admire most. How did you first encounter her?

PINE: You know, around age 5 or 6, my mom would take me to the public library and I would get children's books about the life of Bach or the life of Paganini. And I've always been an avid fan of music history and yet I had never encountered Maud Powell until I was 20 years old. And her biographer, Karen Shaffer, mailed me Maud Powell's biography. And it was a real revelation, not just because of how she was the greatest woman violinist in the world during her lifetime, and playing the works of black composers when white instrumentalists just didn't do that. But, you know, it was the values by which she lived her life, playing concerts for communities that had never before had a classical concert and using the recording technology as a further way to spread great music all over the place to people who had not yet had a chance to fall in love with it.

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MARTIN: As you mentioned, she was daring and she was known for debuting important concertos by big names like Jean Sibelius. Let's listen to one.

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MARTIN: It's fascinating to listen to those old recordings. Is it really true a lot of Americans hadn't heard an American playing this kind of music beforehand?

PINE: Exactly. Maud Powell, she had to make her success in Europe to be then able to come back to America as a superstar. But then she didn't just rest on her laurels but she insisted that, hey, if you want me to play this concert, I am going to do the Tchaikovsky or nothing. And people wanted her badly enough that they were like, OK. You know, that was music that people were a little bit afraid of. And she insisted that if people got to know it, they would love it. And, of course, she was right.

MARTIN: How was she received in her own professional circles? I mean, presumably she was one of maybe just a handful of women who were making music professionally, performing it at that level. How was she received?

PINE: I'll give you a good example. There is a review quote that her husband/manager ended up using as her slogan. It's a little un-PC but it perfectly captured what the world thought of Maud Powell: (Reading) The arm of a man, the heart of a woman, the head of an artist. And in fact, those are still the three things that we all strive for today: great athletic ability on our instruments, a true understanding of the music and being able to convey all of the emotions of the music.

MARTIN: Let's listen to another piece she recorded. This is called "Deep River."

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MARTIN: So, when you listen to that, can you explain what about her music and that piece in particular pulls you in.

PINE: Yeah, this was a beloved Negro melody but Maud Powell pushed the envelope by including spirituals in her recital programs. White artists simply weren't doing that. But, you know, regardless of that interest history, just listening to the way that she shapes the melody line and her timing.

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PINE: You can just hear her voice just sing through the recording horn. And you can just imagine the impact she must have had on her listeners live in concert.

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MARTIN: Why do you think she isn't more widely known?

PINE: Maud Powell was, you know, absolutely tireless in terms of her generosity, answering every snail mail letter that would come to her from young artists wanting advice. But because she was on the road constantly, she didn't have her own studio, and no doubt she would have. She also didn't write any original compositions. She also didn't live into the electric era. And Maud Powell, who is so associated with the Sibelius and the Tchaikovsky and the Dvorak, and, well, she didn't leave any of that to posterity because, you know, they invented electric microphones five years after she died. So, three ways in which violinists do achieve posterity, she just didn't have the luck to fall into any of those categories. So, that's why we have to do everything we can to try to bring her memory back.

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MARTIN: Rachel Barton Pine. She is a violinist and she is receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the great American violinist Maud Powell, who died in 1920. Rachel, thank you so much for talking with us.

PINE: Thank you.

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MARTIN: This is Rachel Barton Pine's version of "Deep River." And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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