Feature Article

Interview: Violinist Philippe Quint

July, 2007

Jason Victor Serinus


An exceptional and wonderfully photogenic violinist, Philippe Quint's recording of William Schumann's Violin Concerto (Naxos) received both a Grammy nomination for "Best Soloist with an Orchestra" and a Gramophone Editor's Choice. Gramophone also gave an Editor's Choice to Quint's Naxos recording of Bernstein's Serenade, released toward the end of 2005.

An American citizen who left the Soviet Union in 1991, Quint is especially known for championing works of 20th century and contemporary American and immigrant composers, including Rorem, Corigliano, Foss, Auerbach, Korngold, and Rosza. Now exploring his longtime penchant for acting, he's preparing to undertake the role of a violinist in "Russian Blue," an upcoming feature film directed by Emmy Award-winner David Grubin and produced by Michael Hausman, whose credits include "Brokeback Mountain," "Gangs of New York," and "Amadeus."

This interview was conducted several months before Quint performed the Glazunov Violin Concerto with the Waterbury Symphony under the adventurous Leif Bjaland. Bjaland describes the work as "an unusual, amazing piece filled with color, rich melodic invention, incredible romantic temperament, and rhapsodic feel.

"The music seems to bring out the most attractive aspects of Russian violinism. You get the whole powerhouse violin technique, an extremely beautiful, voluptuous sound, and a real sense of the romantic style. Philippe has all the equipment to perform the Glazunov as well as you would ever want to hear it. He's great."

Quint started playing violin in St. Petersburg when he was 4 and made his debut at age 9. Although he became fascinated with Glazunov's music at an early age, he did not begin performing the unusual violin concerto until five or so years ago.

I caught up with Quint during a short break in rehearsal for a different concert.

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Jason Victor Serinus: What challenges does the Glazunov present? What does the music do for you?

Philippe Quint: This music very familiar to me. I grew up with the music of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov in St. Petersburg where I was born. In fact, my first experience with Glazunov was when my grandparents took my to Glazunov's ballet Raimonda. I was fascinated by both the music and the ballet.

I first heard the concerto when I heard David Oistrakh play it. It was an amazing experience, and I immediately started learning it. But I performed it only recently.

It's a difficult concerto, and makes a lot of technical demands on the soloist and orchestra. It's written in one long movement, which means you pretty much have no time to rest.

It's also a very Russian concerto. Glazunov was continuing the tradition of the Mighty Handful: five composers – Borodin, Balakariev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, and someone else. They started the nationalist movement in Russian music, and Glazunov continued the tradition.

But the Glazunov Violin Concerto also reflects a lot of influences from the West, most from Strauss. The harmonies started to change slightly, and it wasn't pure Russian music anymore. Glazunov during his lifetime was considered sort of a bridge between Russia and Western Europe. I'm actually extremely excited to do the concerto again, because I haven't done it as many times as I have Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, or Bruch – the concertos you have to play once a week.

Oistrakh is one of the major influences in my life. His approach toward interpretation is so incredibly thoughtful.

Six years ago, I played the Beethoven Eighth Sonata for Isaac Stern. When I finished, besides giving me the usual comments, he said something that made me think for a very long time. He said, "Philip, you have to realize that there is a meaning behind every note."

At the time, the statement was a little vague for me. How do you find a meaning behind every note? But later I realized that he was absolutely right. That is exactly what I find in David Oistrakh's playing, which is why he's such a major influence.

Of course, I can also talk about his sound. An incredible technique. But I think he was one of the most intellectual players of our time.

JVS: The greatest vocal singers have a sense of concentration that suggests that nothing exists besides what they are singing at the moment. In that sense, each one of their notes has such meaning to me, because each encapsulates the entire universe.

PQ: That is correct. There is a major parallel between music and theater, where the actor must be very much in the moment to pull off a great performance. Nothing else must go through your mind. It's extremely difficult. But those who can accomplish it are on top of the world.

JVS: I've read that people did not consider Tchaikovsky a typical Russian composer. When you talk about a characteristic Russian sound, what does that mean?

PQ: People associate the Russian sound with something that is very passionate and exciting – something that really touches you. If you go to a performance, it leaves with you something special.

If we talk about violinists, we start with the particular Russian school and Russian sound of Jascha Heifetz. Then the tradition was carried on by David Oistrakh and others.

The Russian sound also refers to such technical elements as vibrato and tone production. It's also something that comes out of your heart. It's a combination of things. I don't think there are performers or composers about whom you can say, ‘This is distinctly Russian.' Everyone was always influenced by someone else. It's very natural. What it comes down to is that we're all very individual in our approach.

I'm frequently asked about the difference between the Russian School and the American School. There's really no difference; it's pretty much the same school. But after many years of studying and learning and experiencing different types of music, I'm sort of like a hybrid between different schools and different approaches. It ultimately comes down to a very personal and individual style. It's not something you look for. You have either have it or you don't.

JVS: I notice that you're now switching violins to the Stradivarius "Ex-Keisewetter," built in 1723 during Stradivarius' "Golden Period." I just opportunity to hear both Joshua Bell and Nicolaj Znaider play in the same week. There could not be a greater difference between the sound of two men.

PQ: Yes, that's correct.

JVS: Bell has grown more heartfelt, but it's a very intoxicatingly sweet sound. Znaider was darker, more laid back, wonderfully expressive, and so technically assured that I didn't even think about his technique. What has changed in your sound now that you're playing a Stradivarius?

PQ: This is not the first time I've played a Stradivarius. I was previously loaned a Stradivarius from the Juilliard School. I've also tried all different stages of Stradivarius violins: the long pattern between 1690 and 1700, the Golden period, and one when Stradivarius was 16 years old and still a student of Amati. You can see how they all change. He was experimenting. The current one, from 1723 during the Golden Period, has an incredibly beautiful sound. I would have to say that this particular violin expresses my feelings the most.

I think it was Jascha Heifetz who said that a bad violin can destroy even a really good player, but a good violin will help a good player become a great player.

I've noticed over the years that people sound very much the same on different instruments. I heard Pearlman play a Stradivari, and then I heard him play a $100 violin. It sounded very similar, because it was Pearlman. But a violin like a Stradivarius and a Guarneri del Jesu can bring out the best in someone.

You know the famous joke about Heifetz? Someone comes up to him and says, Mr. Heifetz, your violin sounds very beautiful. He puts the violin very close to his ear and says, "I don't hear anything."

JVS: Before Heifetz's Guarneri was loaned to the Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, Alexander Barantschnik, it was kept at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Once a year, students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music got the opportunity to play it in the Palace's Florence Gould Theater, a small jewel box of a theater with excellent acoustics. I attended one of those recitals. There were only two students in the entire group who could make that violin sing.

But in your case, this violin enables you to convey more of what you want to say with the music?

PQ: That is correct. This particular violin really expresses my feelings about the music. It's almost a scary experience, as though this violin is playing by itself with a little support from me.

JVS: You see you'll be recording the Miklos Rosza. Also, Lera Auerbach wrote a piece specifically for you. Are other composers writing for you?

PQ: Not presently. Lera of course wrote the violin concerto, and I've worked with a lot of contemporary composers, including Lukas Foss and John Corigliano. I find the process absolutely fascinating.

JVS: What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

PQ: I'm actually scared to think about what I have to do next year. In the next four months, I have to do Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and others. I have to record three Berio concertos. Lera's concerto is coming up, and I'm doing Glazunov with Indianapolis Symphony as well as Waterbury. Also Bernstein's Serenade. My hands are so full that I think I'm more scared than excited.

Will I be able to pull it off? It means a lot of practicing. But if I had to single out something, I'm really excited about doing Shostakovich's first concerto for the first time. I had the same excitement the first time I had to perform Beethoven's concerto, which I'm doing next week in Colorado at Music in the Mountains in Durango.

JVS: What's with your acting career?

PQ: I've had interest in acting since I was a kid, but never had a chance to explore. In 10 years, I don't want to look back and say that I never tried. So I decided to see where I can go. Theater and music have a lot of things in common. I was fortunate enough to land the part in this big production that's going to be directed by David Grubin It's a movie about music – the Russian community in New York. It's very exciting. And I'm working on it in the middle of this whole schedule.

JVS: I'm going to let you go. With a schedule like yours, it sounds like you could use some space to breathe before your rehearsal begins. I look forward to talking again.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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