Comeback kid
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine-star attraction on this balmy night in Santa Fe--is stranded.

She yearns to get up from the back-yard lawn chair where her husband has deposited her and stroll to a pool that's shimmering green-blue in the desert twilight.

But she instantly realizes that finessing the stone walkways, craggy paths and uneven stairs nearby would be about as practical for her as traversing the face of the moon. So she sits, smiling, for the rest of the evening, her porcelain white skin set against a plume of red hair, feeling almost "like a prisoner," she says later. Meanwhile, Santa Fe socialites flutter around her, asking how she likes their picturesque town so far.

Unfortunately, she hasn't seen much of it, and won't. Though she will have plenty free time on this tour, she will not be able to explore the city's lovely boutiques and spacious plazas. The open wound on what remains of her right foot--which was crushed in a notorious, 1995 Metra rail accident that also took her left leg above the knee--is stinging with pain. And walking, which she does only in spurts even when her injuries are in better repair, just will make matters worse.

With an eight-hour surgery looming--she has endured more than 40 so far--she's simply hoping that she will be able to fulfill concert dates that were booked a year or more in advance. She's also praying that an incurable but now-dormant bone infection, which she contracted the day of the accident, doesn't reawaken, because it could cost her the already badly damaged right leg.

So she tells her admirers outside this sprawling home of a Santa Fe Symphony benefactor that she's too busy to squeeze in any sightseeing, sustaining the illusion of a concert violinist in the pink of good health. The next evening, in fact, she will open the Santa Fe Symphony season brilliantly, reaffirming her gifts as one of the most accomplished violinists of her generation.

But she pursues her art in the bittersweet frame of mind that has defined her life since Jan. 16, 1995, when that northbound Metra train shattered not only her legs but also an extraordinarily promising career and, inevitably, rearranged the rest of her life.

Before the accident, she was a 20-year-old Chicago violin virtuoso who had surmounted poverty and a troubled family life to acquire a stack of international prizes, positioning herself for global artistic success. After, she suffered "indescribable pain" and struggled to balance glorious music with inglorious medical procedures; broke off contact with her parents for years; strove to regain career momentum that may be forever spent; and endured the myth that her accident made her a musical celebrity when, in fact, it grounded her at the very moment she was about to take flight.

At 33, she finds herself performing as splendidly as her earliest fans had expected, but not with the legendary orchestras of Berlin and Paris and New York for which she once seemed destined. Instead, she appears with solid but decidedly less celebrated ensembles in places such as Santa Fe, Danville, Ill., and Youngstown, Ohio, with occasional, treasured engagements overseas.

In a way, her predicament in the Santa Fe back yard mirrors the dilemma of her career, which she hasn't yet been able to move into high gear. Instead, she's still battling to become whole again, more than 13 years after the accident.

Medically, "It's never over, just because of the complicated nature of the combination of my injuries," she says. Professionally, she still longs to perform with the world's greatest ensembles. "If I didn't get to play with those kinds of orchestras," she adds, "I would be heartbroken."

As she contemplates her lawn-chair quandary, her husband, businessman Greg Pine, arrives to rescue her. A tall and rangy former minor-league baseball pitcher, he leads her up and out of the thing, then through the obstacle course of the back yard and onto the driveway, where he has parked their rental van. Tomorrow will be a busy day, and the violinist needs to go to their hotel room to practice and tend to her wounds.

If you factor out the pain and anguish Rachel Barton Pine has endured since 1995, she's leading essentially the life she envisioned as a child thunderstruck one indelible Sunday afternoon by the power of music. Seated in a pew with her mother, father and baby sister, Sarah, at St. Pauls United Church of Christ, near Fullerton and Orchard Avenues, 3-year-old Rachel jumped when she heard three schoolgirls playing Bach on tiny violins.

"Rachel stood up in the pew and said, 'Mom, I want to do that!' " recalls her father, Terry Barton. Her mother, Amy Barton, later made contact with the girls' music teacher, Christine Due, and signed Rachel up for lessons.

"She was an amazing little kid," remembers Due, who watched Rachel devour the class repertoire. Within months, the precocious fiddler was playing Bach at church.

Motivated beyond anyone's expectations, Rachel rushed home from kindergarten every afternoon and practiced for three hours, says her mother. When Rachel learned pizzicato-the technique of plucking the strings with the hand rather than stroking them with the bow-she practiced until "her fingers bled," says Due.

At first, Amy Barton was wary of allowing her daughter to venture too deeply into this newfound obsession. Rachel's mother considered the violin "a rich child's thing," and money was in desperately short supply in this family.

Educated in psychology at the University of Chicago, Amy stayed home to take care of the kids. Her husband, Terry Barton, who also studied psychology at the U. of C., gave up the profession to pursue various business interests, all of which failed.

But Rachel's mother soon realized "This is not ordinary, this talent she has."