'Meaning behind every note': Philippe Quint on young musicians and Stradivarius violins
Violinist Philippe Quint talked with IPR about his Stradivarius violin, "Ruby," and reflected on his experiences as a young musician ahead of his performance with Interlochen's World Youth Symphony Orchestra
It's not often that high school musicians have the chance to perform alongside a world-class soloist, not to mention one with a Stradivari violin.
This weekend, WYSO musicians will have that chance as violinist Philippe Quint takes the stage with his 1708 Stradivari, "Ruby," and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor.
Quint, who has been nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, was born in the former Soviet Union and later moved to the United States to study at the Juilliard School.
He's recorded a broad spectrum of works, including an entire album of music composed by Charlie Chaplin.
Listen to Quint's full interview with IPR Music Director Amanda Sewell or read the edited transcript below.
Attend the concert in person at Kresge Auditorium or listen to IPR’s live broadcast.
The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 9.
AS: You are playing with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra. How do you adapt to playing with high school musicians?
PQ: Well, there was a time when I was part of those orchestras. I was part of the Juilliard Orchestra and a student at the Aspen Music Festival where there were also several youth orchestras. So I had that experience, and I remember loving it. It was probably the most inspiring time of my life, as I can recall it.
And to this day, when you listen to youth orchestras, that's the spirit. That's the kind of energy you want for classical music. There is this very natural excitement from young people truly enjoying the craft before it all becomes professional, mundane or routine. This is when you get a chance to work with older colleagues, a great soloist, great conductors. And when you have somebody as inspiring as Cristian [Macelaru, the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of WYSO]— that is just a priceless experience, just for him to be here. I was so happy when he was appointed artistic director of this festival because I knew that someone like that coming to this particular community could really bring it to the next level.
AS: This will be many of the students' first time playing Max Bruch's first concerto, but you've recorded this and played it dozens of times. How do you approach a performance of a piece you've played so many times?
PQ: That's a great question because a lot of repertoire, especially the standard warhorse concertos, like Mendelssohn, the Bruch, the Tchaikovsky, the Brahms — these are the pieces that you play probably once at least every season. It's important to keep this music fresh, and with a concerto like the Bruch, it is actually not so difficult. It's such incredible music, and luckily for me, and also, obviously, because of the pandemic, I haven't played this concerto in about six, seven years.
So for me, coming back to it was honestly a revelation because it's a world of discovery which never stops. The more you play these pieces, the more you discover.
I try to stay away from words like perfection when it comes to music because I think it's just the wrong adjective to use. Of course, quality is important — that's a different story. But when we talk about interpretation and about the music, it's just a bottomless pit of how far we can go and what we can do with every note.
Many years ago, I played for one of the greatest violinists of our time, Isaac Stern, and there was something that he told me that I'll take with me and try to pass to as many people as possible. He said that there is a meaning behind every note. I was about 21 years old, and I thought to myself, "How could that be? I mean, look at the score. There are literally thousands of notes." This statement was vague to me back then, but it became the most profound advice I've ever gotten from anybody, and to this day, I am still discovering meaning behind every note because it is there.
AS: You play on an actual Stradivari violin — a 1708 "Ruby." Do you call it Ruby?
PQ: Most of the Stradivari violins have names that come from their owners or violinists that played on them. This one doesn't. This one was named after its color, ruby.
And the funny thing is that you would think if it's "Ruby," it needs to be red. But over the centuries, the varnish is no longer red. It's just becoming a different color on its own, despite the fact that it's in mint condition and well-maintained. But there are still parts of the instrument where you can see how intensely burgundy it was.
AS: When you fly, do you buy the violin its own seat?
PQ: It's not necessary because it is considered a small instrument, so it fits comfortably in the upper compartment. Occasionally, you get in trouble with somebody that tries to remove it. But over many years of travel, I have developed so many tricks for avoiding trouble on the plane and making sure that I'm the first one. And also, when people come with their bags and try to stuff them into the same compartment where the violin is, I'm the first one to jump up and say, "Can I help you?"
AS: Is there a club for all violinists who play Stradivari violins from the same year?
PQ: It's actually very funny, but I have encountered several people with a Stradivari instrument from 1708, and they're nothing alike. Maybe there are some similarities because Stradivari was going through many different periods in his life —there's a golden period, a long pattern Strad, there are smaller ones. He kept experimenting and lived a long life, especially at that time.
Ruby is, for me, the perfection of violin, and slightly on a bigger side. But it has all the attributes of a Stradivarius sound. And the other ones don't sound the same at all. It's really just extraordinary that the Stradivarius instruments from the same year don't look alike and don't sound alike. But violinists like to say it's a little bit like meeting a person — a new person that comes into a room has a different face, different voice and different aura. And violins have the same — we completely humanize the violins.
AS: How do you to get to play one? Do they approach you? Do you apply?
I've been fortunate to experience a number of Stradivari violins since my school years at Juilliard. The first Stradivari that I played on was a result of my winning the Juilliard competition. It wasn't the prize, but somehow I was able to get the violin from the Juilliard collection and played on it for several years.
After graduating, it was much more complicated to be able to play on a Stradivari violin. I hopped around from one violin to another, which was actually kind of a complicated process because the last thing you want is to switch to a different violin before an important performance. But I was lucky to meet people that were affiliated with the Stradivari Society in Chicago, and they recommended me to become a recipient. And to this day, I've been a recipient of Stradivari instruments. And again, playing on this 1708 "Ruby" is an absolute magical experience.
AS: Do you get to choose the instrument, or do you just play on what they have available?
PQ: I've had the opportunity to play on the "Ruby" in particular because this is a violin that I heard maybe 10 years before I had it in my possession. I heard a fantastic violinist, Vadim Repin, playing on it in Carnegie Hall, and I remember I was in a very back row and thinking to myself, "That is probably one of the greatest instruments that I've ever heard. How fortunate it is for this incredible violinist to be put together with his violin."
Little did I know that I would be the next recipient of this particular instrument. I knew that it was about to become available, and I spoke to the Stradivari Society and said that if such an opportunity occurred I'd be absolutely honored and thrilled to play it, and it just happened.
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