We all have busy weeks, but violinist Philippe Quint describes this last week as "surreal."
First, his movie Downtown Express had its public release in New York; also, his new recording of Bruch and Mendelssohn Concertos and Beethoven Romances was released. Next week he goes to Mexico City to direct the festival he founded, the Mineria Chamber Music Festival, which is in its fourth season.
In the midst of all this, he took some time to chat with me over the phone about his thoughts on recording such popular works, on how his relationship with Mexico has deepened over the years, and about being an ambassador for music. (If you are interested on his thoughts about acting in a movie, here is an interview we did last year about that.)
Laurie: The Bruch and the Mendelssohn…it's been done before.
Philippe: (laughing) Yes, it's been done before!
Laurie: In some ways it's got to be easier to put out a recording of works that nobody's heard of before!
Philippe: Which I've been doing! (He laughs) It was an interesting leap for me, in that sense, because I've mostly recorded works by American composers: William Schuman, John Corigliano, Miklós Rózsa, Bernstein, Korngold. But my passion was always the concertos I grew up with, by Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Sibelius -- all the standard violin repertoire. I've always imagined that one day, I would love to record those works.
Laurie: They are such popular works and they've been recorded so many times. How did you handle that?
Philippe: I needed to put away all the recordings, all the performances that I've ever heard of these pieces and just go with my own experience and my own beliefs about these works. In preparation for the recording, I purposely did not listen to other violinists. Even if I overheard Mendelssohn or Bruch played somewhere, I tried to run away before I could hear it! I just could not take any more influence on these concertos.
While doing a little research on them, I realized that one of the big parallels between the three composers is the fact that they all wrote for voice. They were all such incredible songwriters, even operatic writers. For example, Bruch was known during his lifetime as a choral composer, so his violin concerto, I feel, is infused with purely operatic passages. That includes the very opening of the concerto, where you have such an incredible recitativo line, over baritone, which slowly moves to tenor, and then it goes further to soprano and then it goes to where the voice can't reach any more.
Laurie: How long have you been playing these?
Philippe: Mendelssohn I first studied when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Then Bruch came a little later, around 16 or 17. But Beethoven Romances were my very first pieces -- I must have been six or seven when I first played them. "Romance in G" was the very first piece I learned. I actually remember very well: when my teacher gave me this Romance, I thought to myself, "This is impossible! How will I ever play all these double stops? I don't know where they are!" I have not actually played them since that time. Now, coming back after so many years, I don't really have any memory of that first study. It's great, because I feel the Romances are the freshest compositions on this CD. Again, I did not listen to any other recordings to prepare. Instead, I wanted to dig into history. Where was Beethoven at that time, when he was composing the Romances? He did not compose Romances for any other instrument, only for the violin.
If you look at the dates of the composition of the Romances, they are around 1798 to 1802. This was a very important period in Beethoven's life. It was around the time of his Immortal Beloved letter. He was in love with a new countess (Josephine von Brunsvik, or perhaps her sister Therese), daughter of another countess. He was always one of the most passionate classicists of all times; I don't know any music that's more passionate. It's just incredible: the moods, the way Beethoven notates everything and harmonizes every thing. You see dynamics where it starts piano then a crescendo into -- pianissimo! Or he'll write a fortepiano -- that's one of his favorite notations. These are sudden, sudden mood changes, much like life. For me, the music of a composer always reflects life, rather than anything else. Notes -- those are just paper, they're only a way to preserve the idea. But the musical emotion comes from the actual life of the composer and his current inspirations. Beethoven was somebody who was known to have one muse after another!
Laurie: I was also interested in the fact that you recorded this in Mexico City, and in this hall, Sala Nezahualcóyotl. It seems like a pretty major hall, and yet I'd never heard of it! Is it?
Philippe: Yes, it was inspired by the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The building was designed by the Mexican architects Arcadio Artis and Orso Núñez, along with the American acoustic expert Christopher Jaffe, who followed the model of the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the Ushers Hall of Edinburgh. Purely aesthetically, the hall in Mexico just so beautiful. Acoustically, it gives you just the right amount of warmth and reverberation. I recorded the Korngold there, and we thought that this would be a great way to continue our collaboration: bringing the same orchestra (the Mineria Symphony Orchestra, along with my friend, conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, into this new project. The project also is based on our relationship in the last three years with the orchestra. We've played Mendelssohn and Bruch concerto countless times with this orchestra. So it brings my childhood dream, as well as the last couple of years, together.
Laurie: How did you develop that relationship? Did it start out with knowing Carlos?
Philippe: Yes! However, it has even more of an interesting twist. We actually met many years ago, when I first went to the Aspen Festival. During the times when we were resting from all that great practice (he laughs), the European and South American students played soccer together in the big field right in front of the cafeteria. I was playing with these two Mexican guys who were very good and very friendly. One of them was named Carlos and another was named Juan Carlos. After Aspen, I didn't see them for many years, and we never kept in touch. Then the next time I saw one of them was on the stage in Mexico City, being one of my conductors!
Laurie: What brought you to that stage in Mexico?
Philippe: I was still a student at Juilliard, and I got a call from my manager that somebody had cancelled a performance of the William Schuman concerto. Of course, nobody knew the piece. So I went to the library, looked it up, and I realized, this is not Robert Schumann, this is William. A whole different world! But I quickly looked through the score. I was anxious to do something challenging at the time -- something daring and challenging. So I told all the managers that I would do it. I said, 'Tell them that I know the piece, please tell them that I know it very well!' (He laughs) Which they did, and miraculously they engaged me -- of course nobody knew this little student from the Juilliard School, who just so happened to be a huge fan of the William Schuman Concerto!
I must have worked nine, 10 hours every day to learn the piece and to memorize the piece. So when I came to the stage, that is when I saw Carlos. We had a great time, reminding each other of our days playing soccer. The performance also was memorable, because I finished the second concert with a different violin and a different bow than I started with!
Laurie: How does a performance start on one violin and one bow, and finish with a different violin and a different bow?
Philippe: (He laughs) Very simple: I broke my only, Russian, $100 bow in the dressing room, right before the concert. So Carlos asked that other brother, Juan Carlos, to help me find a bow. Juan Carlos ran quickly and found a couple of bows to choose from.
So I came out on the stage already with a bow that I'd never used before. Fortunately, I finished the concerto and came back for an encore, when my E string popped! So I borrowed the violin from the concertmaster. Therefore I ended the performance with a different violin and a different bow.
That put this incredible beginning on my Mexican journey, because the news spread around: there's this kid from Juilliard who learned learned William Schuman Concerto in one week (they exaggerated, I had about three or four.) And then, he came and he broke his bow, and he broke his string, and he finished his performance on a different instrument. The news spread around so quickly, and in the next couple of years I was engaged with just about every orchestra in the country. Ever since, I've been traveling to Mexico four or five times a year. That's how my festival started, which is of course now going to be the fourth season, and will be May 2- May 14. (Quint is founder and director of the Mineria Chamber Music Festival in Mexico City; here's their Twitter feed.)
Laurie: So you like Mexico.
Philippe: I love Mexico. It's an incredible country with incredible people. The audiences are extremely warm, and they love the artists. They treat artists as kings there, with incredible hospitality. Mexico is a cultural jewel: architecturally speaking, musically speaking, artistically speaking. They have seven orchestras, just in Mexico City, and even more groups starting and collaborating every year. Of course, every country is going through economic crisis, but in Mexico, I feel that the government is really supportive of the arts and understands the value and importance of having as many as possible cultural outlets that can draw people. The halls are always full. The lines are long, and it's very difficult to get tickets to concerts. Just having this atmosphere reminds me a little bit of my childhood in Russia, when I used to go to concerts, ballets and plays with my parents. You would feel this circle, with so many people lining up for classical concerts. When do you ever see that any more? Where did the times go, when Rachmaninov and Horowitz played in Carnegie Hall and people would wait two days, circling around the block of Carnegie Hall and 57th St. to try to get a ticket or even a glimpse of Rachmaninov and Horowitz? It's very sad that this excitement is only present now in selected countries and cities. Of course, we're all ambassadors for classical music.
Laurie: Well, we'll keep up the fight to keep classical music alive.
Philippe: It is a little bit of a fight. You're fighting for our place in a world of electronic and house music, which is kind of easy to understand and draws a lot of people. A lot of younger audiences prefer that to classical music. But in my book, it is only because a lot of times they were not exposed to classical music. In the last couple of years, I've been converting people one by one -- on the plane, in the grocery, in the pharmacy, the train, anywhere. If I strike up a conversation with somebody and I start talking about what I do, a lot of times they are not familiar with it. But they're absolutely fascinated. They very quickly become fans of classical music.
Laurie: They do, and especially if they know somebody involved.
Philippe: Right, exactly. It's one-by-one, and there's nothing more powerful. And of course, you're promoting something very special, something that's been around for years. This is not something where you need to convince somebody that 'this is great, you should try it.' It is known that it's great, it's incredible. They'll see it right away.
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Philippe Quint plays "Nigun" on the "Ex-Vieuxtemps" Guarneri Del Gesu:
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And here is more about this particular recording of Mendelssohn and Bruch Concertos, and Beethoven Romances:
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