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Profile of Violinist Philippe Quint

September 14, 2009

Philippe Quint likes to tell stories. Playfully pacing back and forth on the stage of Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California—in between rousing, electrifying performances of Mozart’s Sonata in E minor, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, Brahms’ Sonatensatz in C minor, and John Corigliano’s Red Violin Caprices Nos. 2, 4, and 5—the Russian-born violinist regales his afternoon audience with a series of short, well-practiced tales. Those range from the origins of his own, decidedly un-Russian name (his great, great, great grandfather was an Italian officer in Napoleon’s army, and stayed in Russia after being wounded in 1812; his mother named him Philippe due to an enthusiasm for historical French monarchs) to his rocky-start friendship with Corigliano. (The composer called Quint’s apartment by mistake, believing he’d called a lamp repair store, and didn’t believe Quint when the violinist mentioned he’d be playing Corigliano’s popular caprices the following week in New York. “So you don’t have my lamp?” Corigliano kept asking.) And there are tales about the romantic inclinations of Johannes Brahms and how it inspired his work (according to Quint, Brahms liked to write compositions for beautiful women). By the end of the concert, the audience has not only been treated to an outstanding, energetic performance of some of the world’s most beautiful music, it has received a crash course in history, coupled with a smattering of autobiographical stand-up comedy.

CORIGLIANO The Red Violin Caprices
THOMSON 5 Ladies, Portraits

Philippe Quint, violin
William Wolfram, piano

8.559364

John Corigliano has revisited his score for the 1997 film The Red Violin several times. In The Red Violin Caprices, content is allied to a technique making strenuous demands on the performer. The pensive Theme is identical in substance to that heard in the earlier Chaconne (Naxos 8.559306), and its five variations range in style from the Paganinian virtuosity of the first, to the restrained ‘folk’ tinge of the third. Corigliano’s Violin Sonata is among his earliest acknowledged works, its final Allegro enhanced by some scintillating instrumental interplay. Coming from a very different musical background, and representing a very different musical aesthetic, Virgil Thomson’s music displays a skilful assimilation of Gallic clarity and an American-derived nostalgia, with hymn tunes and traditional songs often being evident. “I just heard Philippe Quint’s new recording of my Red Violin Caprices and he was absolutely amazing.” – John Corigliano

Quint, now an American citizen living in New York City, is the son of Russian pop composer Lora Kvint, whom Quint—the violinist altered the spelling of the family name when he relocated to America—describes as “the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Russia.” Quint left the former Soviet Union in 1991, and soon after attended the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with the great violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. Since then, Quint’s career has been rocketing, with a Grammy nomination under his belt for his 2001 recording of William Schuman’s Violin Concerto on the Naxos label (his CD of Korngold concertos is set for June 30 release), and a wild-ride concert schedule that has taken him all over the world. Quint may be most famous, however, for the unfortunate incident last year when he left his 1723 “Ex-Keisewetter” Stradivari violin, valued at $5 million and on loan from philanthropists Clement and Karen Arrison, in the trunk of a taxicab in New York City. He later retrieved it, and rewarded the honest cabbie, Mohamed Khalil, and his colleagues with a private 30-minute concert at the Newark, New Jersey, Liberty International Airport’s cab waiting area. Quint mentions this reported incident on stage in Santa Rosa, playfully producing what he says is a letter from the Newark taxi company—a bill for $5 million. For all the lighthearted humor, however, when Quint plays, he is all focused energy and serious concentration. Even when describing the historical details of a piece, or some snippet from the life of its composer, one gets the sense that, for Quint, the music is far deeper than just the notes he plays so fluidly.

SCHUMAN Violin Concerto, New England Triptych
Philippe Quint, violin
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Jose Serebrier

8.559083

One of the greatest American symphonists, William Schuman established an orchestral sound unmistakably his own. A master orchestrator, he could turn a simple tune (When Jesus Wept from New England Triptych) into a symphonic statement of universal appeal. His witty and imaginative orchestration of an early organ piece by Charles Ives, Variations on America, is included in this collection in order to emphasize Schuman’s great gifts for orchestral color. The ink in the score was not yet dry when Schuman attended my performances of it with Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I had great fun conducting it then (I programmed it dozens of times at Stokowski’s Teenage Concert series, in the early sixties), and enjoyed it even more recording it for the first time, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The Violin Concerto is a powerful work of great drama and intensity that makes great demands on the soloist. The Russian-born American violinist Philippe Quint, making his recording début, is an ideal choice.

KORNGOLD Violin Concerto
Philippe Quint, violin
Orquesta Sinfónica de Mineria
Carlos Miguel Prieto

8.570791

Much admired today as a pioneer of film music, Erich Korngold was a precociously talented composer of concert and chamber music, opera and stage works, as his Schauspiel Overture, written when he was only fourteen, shows. The phenomenal success of his Violin Concerto, an ultra-romantic masterpiece drawing themes from his scores for the films Another Dawn, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper, has overshadowed much of his other music, though his Much Ado About Nothing Suite has remained popular for its expressivity, humour and robust good spirits.

“I think that doing research on any composition you play is absolutely essential,” says Quint, three days later, by phone from his apartment in New York City, “and this is true for anybody, at any level. Knowing where the composer is from, what he was doing while writing his score, what was happening in his life—all of this is extremely important in order to execute the composer’s ideas, like soldiers. Because that’s what we are, soldiers of music. I heard that term once, ‘soldiers of music,’ and that’s how I sort of see myself, somebody who has taken an oath, who has this responsibility to bring the composer’s ideas out into the world before anything else, before my own ideas and my own thoughts.”

Asked if he has, after discovering a new detail about a composition or its composer, been inspired to make changes in how he performs that piece, Quint laughs happily, as if fondly remembering an especially pleasant event.

“I have to say that, generally, I change the way I play these pieces all the time,” he admits. “Even if I put away the composition for three or four months, when I come back, I tend to rethink absolutely everything about it. I believe in the evolutionary process of a musical score. As I’m getting older, as I’m getting more mature, I feel that the music is also growing; therefore I find that it’s an absolutely natural process that I would want to change. And, of course, once I do research on the composer and the history of the work, that only adds to my interpretation.”

As Quint describes it, both nonmusical and musical inspirations might contribute to him changing his approach to a piece. For example, he might be taken by something in a museum, a painting by an artist who was working at the same time as the composer, guessing that the composer might have seen and been inspired by it. All of this is in the service of imagining what things influenced the composer at the time he was penning that particular piece of music. If Quint determines that the composer was sad, or sick, or angry, or exultant at the time he was working on that composition, he tries to bring those emotions to the piece during his own performances.

“Absolutely. Absolutely, I try to do that,” Quint says. “The Mozart I played at the beginning of the recital in Santa Rosa [Mozart’s E minor Sonata, K. 304], I believe that was composed near the death of his mother. Therefore, it has an incredible palate of colors, of sadness, of different moods, so I try to imagine what Mozart was going through, sort of putting myself into that character at that time, and I don’t know how much of that comes through, but that is my intention.”

This process of getting under the skin of a composition is a practice Quint picked up while studying at Juilliard under Dorothy DeLay. That notion, that players should research the background of a piece until they fully understand it, was one he rejected at first as a waste of time. “I didn’t understand the necessity of it,” he says. “I thought it was my job to just play the notes in front of me, and then everything—everything!—would be fine as long as I played it in tune. Many young players believe this, that as long as there are no squeaks, incorrect dynamics, or unauthorized sounds, you are just fine. But this, the technical aspect, is only a quarter of the musical process for me, or maybe even less.

“The notes on the page are just the surface of the music—you have to always dig deeper and deeper, and the great music always gives you an opportunity to do that, to go further than just the music on the page.

“There is so much more than what we have in front of us on that music stand. There is a whole world that lives behind that piece of music. Most composers spend months or years completing their musical compositions, so why should we not treat that music with the utmost respect? This is my philosophy.”

Quint credits his mother for setting a good example as a working musician, but it is his grandparents, with whom he lived for the greater part of his childhood, who encouraged him to become a violinist. “My grandparents had this idea of having a family trio,” he says, “because my mother plays the piano, and my uncle played the cello. So naturally, I had to become the violinist for the future idea of a family trio. The trio, of course, never happened. But I remained as a violinist, and my mother went on to become a popular music composer. Growing up in Soviet Russia was interesting because the cultural life was very strong. There were a lot of ballets and operas and concerts. The number of classical concerts I attended was quite enormous. All of that creates a very good beginning for a musician.”

Asked what other tips he would offer a young musician asking for advice, Quint responds with enthusiasm that is palpable, even over the phone. “Perhaps it’s an obvious thing,” he says, with an infectious laugh, “but I believe that in a young musician’s room there must be posters of [Russian violinist] David Oistrakh. Or Horowitz. Or Ludwig van Beethoven. I believe there should not be pictures of Britney Spears and whomever else. I believe you should practice in a room with no technology. A lot of students actually practice with the television set on! There are so many things in this world to distract a young musician, but all of this distraction does not serve well. In my apartment, I have this ‘sacred place’ where I have nothing but a music stand and a metronome.”

What, no posters?

“I do have posters,” he laughs. “A few inspiring pictures of great musicians, my idols, who are David Oistrakh and a few others. Other than that, when I practice, I just want to make sure that I am completely surrounded by the musical world.”

This sense of “sacred space,” so important to Quint’s rehearsal process, can also be transferred to the concert stage, he says, but it takes a great deal of imagination. “Of course, performance is very different from just playing in your apartment,” he says, “but I think the best way to describe it is to say that I go into a different dimension, and I think a lot of musicians feel this same way. Obviously, when performing in front of an audience, the knowledge that I have an audience is beneficial, because there’s a certain excitement and anticipation from the audience that I sense every time I play. I love to perform. I love being onstage. I love communicating with the audience, musically and verbally. As a musician, you somehow create this incredible energy. I can’t say that it happens every time, but in most cases, I really feel that that communication is happening. It gives me more power, more inspiration to play better, to play more, to come back and do as many encores as possible. It’s a thrill, it’s such a joyful ride.

“I can’t even put it in words,” he adds, trying once more to do just that. “When I am onstage, I create a sort of meditative state for myself. I put myself in a place where I am not concerned that it might be raining or snowing outside, or anything else. When I am onstage, I forget pretty much everything.” He laughs again.

“I just let myself soak into the music,” he says, “and then I stay there until the last note.”


PLAYER’S TIPS: On Finding Perfection

“I have to say that sometimes I read about musicians who say that they are striving for perfection,” says Philippe Quint, musing on the question of what goals a musician should have when he steps onto the concert stage. “And, certainly, when it comes to the technical aspects of playing, on any instrument, it’s important to achieve a certain level of quality—good phrasing, healthy sound, vibrato, all of these are very important. But I think that when it comes to actually making music, for an audience, the term ‘perfection’ does not exist—and should not exist, because imperfection is the beauty of the music. It’s not about perfection. It’s about emotion. Emotionally, the experience is absolutely limitless, and you can go as far as you can.”

It is because of this that Quint always recommends that young students immerse themselves in the emotional life of a composer whose pieces they are learning. “I want students to be aware, if they are playing a Beethoven sonata, of what was happening in Beethoven’s life at the time, of what was happening in Brahms’ life if they are playing the violin concerto,” he says.

“For example, Brahms was very influenced by Gypsy music when he was writing the violin concerto—he was generally influenced by Gypsy music—and this is an important aspect of Brahms’ life that you should know because this way you can add a little bit of a Gypsy feel, maybe somewhere. Bartók was somebody who was very influenced by Hungarian folk music. That’s important to know. So my recommendation to all the students is to know as much as possible about the composer and the history of the piece, and to imagine what [the composer was] feeling as [he or she] composed that music.”

– David Templeton

Source: All Things Strings


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