"If I could play it three times during the concert – I would!" Philippe said, laughing. "It's one of those works that gives you an incredible amount of positive energy." He spoke to me on the phone from New York in early June, about his new recording of the Korngold, about Dorothy DeLay's uncanny ways, and about the day the Strad he plays went flying away in a taxi – without him.
"I instantly had something that's called 'love at first sight' with the Korngold concerto," Philippe said. "I heard Jascha Heifetz's recordings, and I think I heard Perlman's performance and I instantly knew, I literally ran right into the library and got the score and started learning it, right away."
"I started the piece with Dorothy DeLay," Philippe said. "Right after the first lesson, Miss DeLay said, 'Philippe, this is your piece!' Strangely enough, the (Juilliard) concerto competition that year was the Korngold concerto, and the winner was to play with Kurt Masur at Avery Fisher Hall. I won, and I also got to play the piece for Isaac Stern beforehand.
That was back in 1997.
This week Philippe releases his recording of the Korngold, on Naxos with conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mineria, and also including orchestra works by Korngold (Overture to a Drama, Op. 4 and Much Ado About Nothing Concert Suite, Op. 11). This is not his first recording; Philippe also was nominated for two Grammys for his 2001 recording of the William Schuman Violin Concerto and has recorded works by Rorem, Bernstein and Rozsa.
Korngold was a prolific composer of film scores, and he never lived that down.
"It's strange, the Korngold is still underestimated repertoire," Philippe said. "It's being performed more frequently these days, but it still has the whole Hollywood connotation, which is exactly what Korngold suffered from during his lifetime; he could never quite cross back from Hollywood to classical.
"What is interesting is that it's really not Hollywood that made Korngold, it's Korngold that made Hollywood," Philippe said of the film music that Korngold produced. "If you look at the harmonic structures and if you go into the analysis of his works, deep analysis, you will see that it's very Wagnerian."
"Of course, each movement (of the violin concerto) is derived from a film score," he said. "But if you take away the knowledge that Korngold was a film composer, then what you will see is that he followed the great tradition of Wagner, and Strauss, continuing with the idea of music drama, where the violin, or voice, plays the main part. In a way, it's like a mini-opera. Even in his own words, Korngold described his concerto as a cross between Enrico Caruso and Niccolo Paganini. In fact, he said it was very nice to have both Caruso and Paganini in one person, after Jascha Heifetz premiered it."
I wondered, not having ever played the piece, is it hard to play?
"It actually is quite difficult," Philippe said. "It's awkward; it's not violinistic at all. To be honest with you, this is the kind of challenge that I absolutely love. I love composers that did not write for violin particularly. Works by Paganini, Wieniawski and Sarasate seem to be very difficult technically, but at the same time, you know that those works were written by violinists. Essentially, once you figure out what is the little tricky technique behind it, then you can actually get it pretty well because it's still under your fingers. Like if you take the Wieniawski Concerto, it's all under your fingers, just a matter of practicing over and over."
"But if you take concertos like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven," he said, "those were mostly pianist composers, and they didn't really have much concern about the violinist's difficulties, or making things comfortable for us. Naturally that presents a little bit of a challenge – you have to figure out the bowings and fingerings that make sense in terms of phrasing."
Philippe was born in the Soviet Union, and he came to New York in 1991 to study with Dorothy DeLay.
"It was, of course, a major change, not to mention that I did not actually speak English at the time," Philippe said. "What happened was that somebody brought my cassette to Miss DeLay, from some concert in Russia, and she listened to it and she said she would be happy to give me an audition. I came, and I played for her, and she invited me to the Aspen Music Festival right away."
"It had been my dream for many many years to come study at Juilliard, and with Dorothy DeLay," Philippe said. "It was like a myth. In Russia – at that time it was the Soviet Union – nobody really knew what was going on, but we were told that if you get into Juilliard, you're going to get a stipend, and they will pay for your apartment, you will study with Dorothy DeLay, you will have a recording contract the next day," (he laughs) "and you're the next Jascha Heifetz!" (He laughs again.)
"So sitting in my little apartment in Moscow, I had all those dreams; I was envisioning life in America," he said. "And of course, when Perlman came to Russia in 1991, I saw in his biography that he was also a student of Dorothy DeLay."
Philippe said that DeLay was a master of getting her point across without insulting students. Many of her former students mention the same story, when she would say to a student, "Sugar Plum, what is your concept of F#?"
"It's quite a brilliant way of saying, 'Your F# is out of tune,'" Philippe said. "In Russia, if you're not prepared, or if you're playing out of tune, the teacher would take your music, take you, and just throw you out of the class with a few unpleasant words. So suddenly, I come to Juilliard, and somebody's asking me, how do I feel about this work? Or what is my concept of this piece? Or what is your concept of F#?" (He laughs.)
"At the same time, she would always make sure that the point gets across," he said. "It was just as embarrassing if somebody is screaming at you that you are playing out of tune as somebody saying, 'What is your concept of F#?' I mean, you don't even know what an F# is supposed to sound like? It was a very interesting approach."
He described another incident in which DeLay gave him a strong message, but in her unique way of communicating.
"I was working on the Wieniawski second violin concerto -- I loved the work, and I particularly loved Perlman's recording of the piece," Philippe said. "I was playing for Miss DeLay for the lesson, and when I got to the last movement, in the cadenza, right before the fast part, I did this glissando somewhere there. Suddenly, I hear, from Miss DeLay's corner, 'Yuck!'"
"I stopped, and I looked at her, and I said, 'You didn't like it?' And she said, 'That was absolutely disgusting, where did you come up with this?' I said, 'Well, Miss DeLay, your student, Mr. Perlman, does exactly the same thing in the recording.'"
"And she said, 'Come here, Sugar Plum. I'm going to tell you a little story.'"
"So I came to her table. She looked down, and she was silent for a few moments. And then she said, 'Philippe, did you know that I had an older sister?' And I said, 'Ah, no, Miss DeLay, I didn't know.'
"'Well, in any case,' she said, 'I had an older sister, and I really loved the clothes that my sister used to wear.'"
"And I said, 'Ok....'"
"Then she said, 'But particularly, I loved her red shoes. She had this beautiful pair of red shoes. When my sister wasn't around, I would wear them, all the time. There was just one problem. They were a size larger than my foot. They didn't actually fit me.' And then she looked at me."
"Basically, the point was, when you become Perlman, you can do anything you want," Philippe said. "But the way she showed it to me was utterly brilliant. She could have said, 'Stop imitating or copying great artists.' Or she could have said, 'You're not Perlman, when you get to that level, that's when you can do it.' But she actually told me a story that was just incredible, to indicate her thinking."
Philippe plays on the 1723 "ex-Kiesewetter" Stradivari violin, an instrument that took a little solo adventure in a Newark taxicab during the wee hours of the morning one day in April 2008, leaving Philippe to a frantic search. The incident generated much press but did end in a happy reunion – as well as a gratitude concert for the cab drivers.
Philippe can talk about it now with a sense of humor, but it was an ordeal, he said.
"First of all, I would like to thank Violinist.com for a wonderful poll that took place when it was happening," he said. "I was giving an interview to the New York Times about the whole incident, and that was probably about an hour after I got the poll from Violinist.com! So I told the guy that, by the way, there's this site, you should check it out, it's called Violinist.com..." The poll showed that 37 percent of respondents had left their violin somewhere, and people also shared their harrowing stories about forgetting their fiddles in various places.
"Honestly, I thought this would never ever happen to me," Philippe said. "When I read about Yo-Yo Ma, or Lynn Harrell, Kramer or recently, Glenn Dicterow – I thought, that is impossible. It must be a publicity stunt. But now I realize how quickly this can happen, how your mind, for one second is not there. Like when Kramer left his violin on the train, he was studying scores, and that was what was in his head. I think Yo-Yo Ma was coming from some performance, as well. We do get tired, we get fatigued, we think of many things."
"This incident certainly was not an accomplishment of any sort. It was a great misfortune that was slightly turned around when I gave a concert for the drivers," he said. "The whole story was largely twisted by the media, because when it happened, I actually refused any interviews. I was completely scared. I was getting calls from NBC, ABC, and everyone was calling my cell phone! How do they have access to my cell phone? It was actually quite nerve-wracking and scary experience, and the twist of the story was I did not actually forget the instrument. It was two o'clock in the morning and I was a little bit not-alert-as-I-usually-am, and I was putting the bags off the road and closed the trunk. The violin was still in the backseat, I was perfectly aware of that, and the guy took off. Everything happened in a split second; the guy just rushed off and I saw the cab in the distance."
"A lot of papers and channels said the violin was in the trunk, and I kept saying no, it's not in the trunk! Did you forget it? No I did not forget it! Did the driver return it to you? No he did not return it to me, I found him! Some article said the driver was looking for Quint, no, nobody was looking for me. I was looking for him, he was sleeping! He was actually happy because I was his last customer. He was rushing home because he was done with his job, forever. He was perfectly fine, sleeping at home. I think people were trying to reach him, but he had his phone off. And then he must have turned it on, around noon. By that time, I was in Newark, on my feet, from 7 a.m., running around, talking to people. I was barely walking. The problem was that the more people I was talking to, the less it seemed possible to retrieve the instrument. Nobody could help me at the time, they didn't know where the violin was, they couldn't figure out who the driver was. I didn't have a receipt, and I tried to recognize the driver from the pictures at the taxi authority there and I pointed out the completely wrong guy!"
He said there were probably hundreds of pictures, and "believe me, and it wasn't the greatest book that I've ever read," he said.
When the violin was finally found, Philippe actually missed the call. Then he listened to it: "Mr. Quint, we have located your item."
Mr. Quint's "item" – the 1723 "Ex Kiesewetter" Stradivari is an instrument he has been playing, on loan through the Stradivari Society, for about three years.
"It's a great, great instrument," Philippe said. "It's been a wonderful get-to-know process between me and the instrument. I always feel that the relationship between an instrument and a player is a very particular one, in a way, like marriage. Having played on in for a few years, to my ears it sounds like a completely different instrument. I know it so much better; it's extremely responsive. I feel that it mainly adds to my personality. There's a lot of talk, are you a del Gesu player? Or are you a Strad player? For me, there is no question: I love the Strad. I'm a little bit on the hyper side of a person, very passionate...the Strad, in way, is the opposite of me because it's warm and soft and serene and calming, so I feel that we have this beautiful rapport."
Philippe has been a U.S. citizen for 12 years. I asked him, what made him decide to stay in the U.S.?
"The biggest reason was to study at Juilliard," he said. "In the late 80s, early 90s, it was very difficult to live in the Soviet Union any more, particularly for musicians, there were just no opportunities, so everyone was leaving. Also, personally, it had to do with the death of my teacher, whom I absolutely adored, Andrei Korsakov, who was a well-known concert violinist in Europe and Russia – and some sort of a distant relative of Rimsky-Korsakov. He died at a very young age, and that was just another push to start thinking about a different direction in my life. My family left, though my mother stayed because she's actually a well-known pop composer. She's still there, and she's working for film and musicals, she has many projects. We meet about once a year, which is not enough, but now with Skype and all the technology, it's a little bit easier to communicate on a regular basis."
Philippe also has explored an interest in acting.
"There were some possible projects; they never took off," he said. "But I got to meet very interesting people like Robert DeNiro and Matt Damon and a few others. But then I didn't have the time to pursue this any further because I was concertizing so much in the last few years, that whole acting thing died out."
"But it was a fantastic learning experience," he said. He took acting lessons on and off for three years from Sondra Lee, whose credits include Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and a supporting role in the original movie, "Peter Pan."
While studying acting, "I discovered a lot of things that benefited my playing" Philippe said. "Any acting coach will tell you the most important thing about acting is listening, and I think that for a great musician, the most important part is also listening. The second thing is being in the moment. As an actor, you have to be in the moment, you have to understand the character. And as musicians, we also really need to be in the moment, and understand the character of the work that we're doing. If you study a work, you have to subdivide it, you have to dig into the history; if you study a play, you also have to subdivide it and understand the history, and the style. It's so similar; it's not even funny."
"You can't fool an audience," Philippe said. "You don't have to have this profound knowledge of what you're watching, but one thing you do know, does a performance touch you, or not? Are you involved by the performer? Do you come out with something after this performance? People know that, they feel that, they talk about it. Would they come back to see this performer again, yes or no? Without the actual knowledge, people will tell you, yes, this was exciting. Something magnetic was going on, and it's irrelevant whether you have the knowledge or not."
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