Profile of Violinist Philippe Quint
On finding your sacred space and remaining loyal to the music
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.
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.
“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.