[Scene Magazine] Exploring symphonic shores and worlds
This weekend's Santa Barbara Symphony program features Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and guest soloist, violinist Philippe Quint
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
For this weekend's installment in the ongoing Santa Barbara Symphony season, an ocean-crossing, geo-musical plot provides narrative logic. For the orchestra's main event in the concert, maestro Nir Kabaretti leads the ensemble in that beloved and healthy old warhorse, Dvorák's "New World" Symphony, an expression of affection the great 19th-century Czech composer felt for the world that was the America he lived in for a spell.
Opening the concert, the Tokyo-born Japanese-American composer Karen Tanaka's "Guardian Angel," written in 2000, for clarinet, harp, percussion and string orchestra, represents the realm of the living composer, with a Japanese perspective.
But perhaps the most intriguing work on the program comes equipped with a strong German-Hollywood connection. For the concerto portion of the concert, the respected Russian-born but long U.S.-based violinist Philippe Quint returns to Santa Barbara to play a piece he has helped to champion, the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold was part of a wave of gifted European composers drawn to the early stage of "sound pictures" in Hollywood, led there by the lure of high-paying and public-exposed composition work, and as an escape route from the brewing storm clouds of Nazi dread back home.
Mr. Quint is a virtuosic and versatile musician who also acted in the 2012 indie film "Downtown Express" with another musician, Nellie McKay. He has performed with the Santa Barbara Symphony before, going back to a Brahms-ian evening in 2008. We connected for an interview while he was recently in Mexico City, tending to the Mineria Chamber Festival, which he has been directing, before heading up to Santa Barbara this week.
News-Press: With the Santa Barbara Symphony, you will be performing the Korngold Concerto, a piece which is refreshingly off the map of standard concerto repertoire — and which, through your recording of it, earned you a Grammy nomination. Korngold was one of those composers who found great fame, and work, in Hollywood, but whose concert life isn't as well-known as it should be. Do you like the notion of championing this music, and helping put it in the public ear?
Philippe Quint: When Jascha Heifetz premiered the Concerto in 1947, Korngold commented that it was "nice to have had Paganini and Enrico Caruso in one person." By all means, this quote summarizes the challenges this Concerto poses for performers — over-the-top Romanticism in a great tradition of Mahler and Strauss with fiendishly difficult passage work that could easily be called "unplayable."
I have been championing the Korngold Concerto for approximately 20 years now. It is finally becoming a Concerto that is being programmed almost regularly with all major orchestras around the globe and I am delighted every time I have an opportunity to perform this marvelous work.
NP: You are in Mexico at the moment, in connection with your work with the Mineria Chamber Festival. Can you tell me how that project came about and what the overall concept is behind it?
PQ: The Mineria Chamber Festival that I started five years ago has evolved into a two-week Chamber Music cycle that I curate as a part of Mexico's oldest and biggest Festival del Centro Historico. Last night I completed the last concert of what was yet another year of presenting great music with my colleagues from around the globe as well as locally based wonderful Mexican artists.
It was truly my dream for many years to run a Chamber Festival, and after many years of coming to Mexico and really falling in love with this most colorful and fascinating country — together with Academia de Mineria and now the Festival del Centro Historico — my dream has finally come true. Over the years we have been fortunate to present many performances, lectures, master classes, film screenings and exhibits. Future plans include to further the education aspect of the festival as well as to present music of young Mexican composers.
NP: You are involved in many avenues of music, from chamber to orchestral work, and other activities. Are you always trying to find the ideal blend of the various things you do in your musical life?
PQ: I love having variety in my work. Music certainly gives me this opportunity. Most of my seasons are occupied by guest appearances with different orchestras. I get my chamber music fix with my festival in Mexico. Furthermore, my recently started tango group, the Quint Quintet, which concentrates on exploring the music of Astor Piazzolla and my forthcoming new CD and project "Bach XXI" with Matt Herskowitz Jazz Trio, are keeping me busy and excited about what I do.
NP: In other Southern California-related news, you premiered Lera Auerbach's Concerto, which was written for you, at Disney Hall. Is that a special piece to you? And do you have any particular connection to the Russian heritage you share with the composer?
PQ: This premiere that you mention took place a while back, at the inaugural season of Disney Hall and it was particularly exciting to do a world premiere of the Concerto that was written specially for me by one of the most talented composers of her generation, Lera Auerbach. Lera's music is complex but it speaks worlds to me. I guess it does not hurt that Lera and I have similar backgrounds, living through the very last days of Soviet regime and witnessing the fall of the Iron Curtain.
I have great interest in modern music although I am rather selective when it comes to programming new works, as I must wholeheartedly believe in the music I am performing or recording. Lera and I collaborated most recently at the San Francisco performances, where we gave several premieres of her new works.
NP: You made your orchestral premiere at age 9 in Moscow. Can I assume it was clear from a very early age that the violin would be your future?
PQ: I never wanted to become a violinist. Not even a musician. My interests were in line with all the kids of that era. I secretly wanted to be a cosmonaut and later graduated into becoming a soccer player, followed by becoming a professional chess player — with dreams of beating Gary Kasparov and Bobby Fischer — and ending up with being a detective after completing all volumes of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
It was not until I was 13 years old when I decided that violin was going to be my future and perhaps the investigative qualities I picked up from Doyle's stories I was able to apply to my research in music.
NP: You play on a 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius. Does this instrument have a special personality and feel, something that has changed the nature of your playing?
PQ: I love the fact that Stradivari instruments have names. Rightfully so. Much like human beings, these instruments have unique voices and personalities. And yes, there is also a great deal of chemistry. "Ruby" was a violin I knew about for many years as it was played by one my colleagues.
I remember being fascinated by its voice and never in a million years thought that I would end up playing it. It's now been about five years and it has been an absolutely thrilling journey. The tonal palette this violin has is truly unbelievable.
NP: Do you have projects coming up?
PQ: My next two projects are a bit out of the box. I will be releasing a CD of all new arrangements that I commissioned from a brilliant composer — pianist Matt Herskowitz — titled "Bach XXI," an imaginative jazz take on some of the most popular of Bach's works for violin and Matt's jazz trio. It is not the first time Bach's music has been re-arranged and re-imagined. I heard Matt's arrangements for the first time a few years ago and I really felt there was something there that was so completely unique and fresh that it was an absolute "must" to do a whole CD of Matt's wild ideas.
In the summer I plan to also record my first CD with my tango band the Quint Quintet. This five-year-old project has now turned into an actual show, with dancers and special lights. I am very excited about my forthcoming tour with this group in Central America this May.
NP: To broach a more general, observational area, has your musical life worked out in a satisfying way, in a way you might have predicted or hoped for?
PQ: My life always took the most unpredictable paths. I've always taken risks by jumping into a pool of completely new and unknown endeavors. The theory is simple: better to have failed than to never have tried.