Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint’s chamber ensemble prepares to tour and record
by Rory Williams
While at a club one night, fate would have it that two-time Grammy-nominated violinist Philippe Quint would run into Fernando Suarez Paz, the violinist of Astor Piazzolla’s famous Quinteto Nuevo Tango, which toured the globe from 1979 to 1991. But Quint could do little more than shake hands and nod.
“I was a bit reluctant to say, ‘Here I am. I play tango,’” says Quint, renown for his skills a classical soloist. “Only now, after several years, I get the style, I get the idiom.”
It takes two to tango, the old adage goes, but these days Quint has found the most success with five. In between solo concerto engagements with the London Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic and recordings of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Bruch, the Russian-American violinist has taken his tango nuevo outfit the Quint Quintet on the road. In 2015, the quintet will also settle into the studio to mark its sixth anniversary with a debut album—all of which Quint never saw coming. “My life throws me into unpredictable paths, which is the case with the quintet,” Quint explains.
Indeed, Quint, who was trained in Moscow by Russian violinist Andrei Korsakov and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Juilliard School under Dorothy DeLay, is much more recognized for his classical chops.
His William Schuman: Violin Concerto, New England Triptych; Ives: Variations on America (Naxos, 2001) and Korngold:Violin Concerto (Naxos, 2009) were both nominated for Grammy Awards. In a review of his Paganini: La Campanella,LeStreghe (Naxos, 2010), the late Strings writer Edith Eisler opined: “This record concentrates on bravura display that leaves no violinistic resource unexplored: harmonics; left-hand pizzicato; double-, triple-, and quadruple-stops; staccato; ricochet; and, of course, running passages at hair-raising speeds, especially in the Moto perpetuo.”
Tango nuevo entered Quint’s life in the form of an invitation to play in a Jupiter Symphony Chamber Series concert. There were, however, two catches. First, Quint was to play famous works by nuevo tango creator and bandoneon master Piazzolla (1921–92), which he had appreciated but never performed. Second, the other members of this quintet would be Israeli pianist Roman Rabinovich, Polish bandoneon player Lidia Kaminska, and Americans double-bassist Kurt Muroki and classical-electric guitarist Oren Fader—all respected musicians in their own right, but “none of us were from Argentina,” Quint laughs. “We just tried really hard to figure out how to execute Piazzolla’s markings.”
Piazzolla, who was born in Argentina, but raised in New York City after he turned four, once told Chilean journalist Gonzalo Saavedra: “Music is more than a woman, because you can divorce a woman, but not music. Once you marry her, she is your forever-lasting love, and you go to the grave with her.” It only took one rendezvous before Quint was hitched.
“Right after the first rehearsal, I was absolutely fascinated by the sound,” Quint says. “And after the concert, I was convinced I had to do this on a regular basis.”
With Fader in tow, Quint set out to establish a bonafide nuevo tango ensemble, but first he had to find Argentinean players near his home in New York City. So, Quint did what any intrepid investigator would do and searched “bandoneon + New York” on the web. The first name that popped up—and still does—was Hector del Curto, who was not only intrigued by Quint’s proposal, but also recommended pianist Vassilis Varvaresos and bassist Armando Rangel to round out the quintet.
“The thing that I learned from the Argentine players is something I wouldn’t have been able to learn from anyone else,” Quint says. “It’s in their blood—the execution of rhythms.”
It’s well documented that Quint is an avid researcher. In a 2009 Strings profile, Quint noted: “I think that doing research on any composition you play is absolutely essential. . . . 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.”
For his Piazzolla project, Quint dove into the key recordings—Adios Nonino (1969), Libertango (1974), The New Tango: Astor Piazzolla & Gary Burton (1986)—and as many YouTube videos as he could find. Through his Argentinean bandmates, he learned more about how the legatos work in context, how to slide in the tango style, and that he needed to slow his vibrato. Additionally, Quint says, “The bow strokes—the right hand—were more important than the left hand in many ways because of the amount of effects Piazzolla uses.” If it sounds easy, Quint reassures us that it wasn’t. “Growing up in a very strict environment with extreme concentration on precision, tasteful sliding, perfect intonation, beautiful sound at all times—this is what we’re being taught in schools as classical violinists,” he says. “Suddenly, with Piazzolla, the ideas are very different. He has a very Argentine folk quality to his music, and the way to gain it was for me to readjust my Juilliard training. That was an ordeal!
“. . . After going through this process, I realized how little people know about what Piazzolla intended to say. It’s a little bit like thinking if I show up in front of a camera, that makes me an actor. Now, after six years of playing the music, I’m learning about how it supposed to sound and it’s only becoming more difficult for me because I’m becoming more aware of what needs to be heard. There’s no universal way of approaching the music. Naturally, all interpretations will be different. Interpretation is a modification of a composer’s idea. It’s how we as musicians, as we mature, it’s how we arrive to our final idea of how any music is supposed to flow.
“With Piazzolla, a lot of classically trained musicians neglect the substance behind the music. Piazzolla for many years has been an underrated composer. If you look at the writing, it’s absolutely brilliant, especially when he bases his work on Bach. A lot times he uses the canonic form, the fugal form. The Four Seasons [of Buenos Aires] is absolutely brilliantly written.”
Shortly after a gig in Steinway Hall in New York, Quint was given the green light by his old Juilliard classmate and occasional chamber-music partner cellist Zuill Bailey to make the Quint Quintet’s official debut at the 2010 El Paso Pro-Musica, one of four chamber-music institutions that Bailey directs.
“A person who is capable of doing so many different things is an artistic director’s dream,” Bailey says. “He’s such a draw as an admired violinist. Everybody knows that what he’s going to bring to the table is going to be of the highest quality. [When Quint plays,] there’s a vibrancy in the hall, and a great sense of relaxation. The music that he brings is so accessible, it doesn’t have airs to it.” Both Bailey and Quint agree the debut was a success, and Bailey invited the quintet to perform in his Sitka Summer Music Festival in Alaska, the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington, and the Mesa Arts Center in Arizona.
“People went crazy,” Quint says of the debut. “It felt like a rock concert. That indicated that we needed to go further and develop the group.”
Since the debut, the quintet’s roster has included bandoneon player J.P. Jofre, bassists Pedro Giraudo and Mat Fields, guitarist Claudio Ragazzi, and pianists Octavio Brunetti and Alejandro Vela. In 2013, Quint added dancers for “Libertango” and “Milonga del Angel,” which complete the show.
“I’ve always wanted to work with dancers, and this was a great opportunity,” Quint says. “People loved it. Altogether, the idea is to transport the audience into a different state. I tell people from stage: ‘Prepare to be transported into a different world. But if you don’t come back, please see a doctor.’
“Music is about being transported, and with Piazzolla, it’s a simpler way to get there.”
In addition to Piazzolla, audiences are treated to original works written by the quintet members, as was the case in April when the San Diego Symphony invited them to collaborate.
Quint intends to further incorporate new works in his 2015 dates. Also on the agenda: tango dance lessons.
In September, AvantiClassic released Quint’s recordings of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Arensky Quartet No. 2, Op. 35. Quint performed the Tchaikovsky with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Martin Panteleev at Bulgaria Hall.
“In most cases, you’re going to get an eye roll, when people see another Tchaikovsky concerto recording,” Quint says. “I feel that something still needs to be said about this piece. There’s still a story that needs to be told.” The recording includes the last movement presented twice—Tchaikovsky’s original scoring and Leopold Auer’s condensed version.“The third movement is the one that’s always creating a huge debate to this day: to cut or not to cut. I learned it with cuts, and every golden-era violinist is doing it with cuts. I’ve always felt that the version with cuts is more condensed and is less redundant, but I wanted to bring both versions on the same CD, which I believe is the first time somebody has done that. People can have their own opinion of what works—I leave it as an open dialogue at this point.”
For the Aresnky, Quint is joined by violist Lily Francis and cellists Claudio Bohórquez and Nicolas Altstaedt.
“Arensky in Russia is called mini-Tchaikovsky. He never quite blossomed into being one of the giant Russian composers. His quartet was the very first chamber work that I performed in my life. This was music that was very close to my heart.”
What Philippe Quint Plays
Quint plays the 1708 “Ruby” Antonio Stradivari violin on loan from the Chicago-based Stradivari Society. “The Ruby is a universal violin—you can pretty much play any music,” he says. “Most of my musicians are used to being amplified. I really don’t like being amplified or playing with an overhead microphone because you can’t move. I use a microphone that Lara St. John recommended to me that you put through the tailpiece and into a monitor.”