Happy Camper: Violinist Philippe Quint Hits the Half-Century Mark

This spring, Quint will premiere an exciting new violin concerto, a piece he commissioned from acclaimed Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen

By David Templeton | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

It’s shaping up to be a major milestone year for violinist Philippe Quint. The Russian-born musician turned 50 in March, right around the time he celebrated the 30th anniversary of his professional United States debut. More than 33 years after defecting to the United States from Leningrad, the two-time Grammy nominee has given hundreds of live performances and produced more than 15 albums, including the acclaimed Chaplin’s Smile (2019) and Korngold: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (2009).


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This spring, Quint will premiere an exciting new violin concerto, a piece he commissioned from acclaimed Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen. In quick succession, he will perform the piece in several cities with multiple orchestras, including the Calgary Philharmonic, the Kansas City Symphony, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Then, in May, the new Wallen concerto will be recorded in Glasgow for the Pentatone label, pairing the piece with another significant work, a concerto from composer (and longtime friend from their Juilliard days) Lera Auerbach, who wrote the piece for Quint in 2003. 

“Yeah, quite a few things are going on right now,” says Quint midmorning in February. “It’s difficult to grasp that I’ll soon be 50 years old, and it’s difficult to fathom how much is happening, that I’m as busy as I’ve ever been. But the reality is, you know, that time, it doesn’t stop.”

The debut of the Wallen piece was not initially planned to coincide with his 50th birthday, Quint allows, it having been commissioned over three years ago. Calling it “a fortunate coincidence,” he feels that now is the right time to share this work—one that began as a matter of chance—with the world.

“I did not know Errollyn’s music until I accidentally overheard it in a music video, of all places. Then I kept hearing it over a period of several days, and I became curious who wrote it,” he explained. “What really struck me about Errollyn was the freshness and uniqueness of her voice. I love when I’m not able to pinpoint what a piece of music reminds me of, when it’s absolutely unique.” Hearing Wallen’s music prompted Quint to do some extensive research on her other works. “And after a couple of days listening to her enormous body of work, I realized that she was a person I wanted to commission a concerto from,” he says.

After a series of getting-to-know-you discussions, Quint invited Wallen to write a concerto for him. The project, he learned, would be the first violin concerto she’d undertaken. “So, she was excited by the prospect,” he says. “And I was excited by the prospect.”

Many new musical commissions have a brief life, of course, as they struggle to garner additional performances after their world premieres. To ensure that would not happen to Wallen’s concerto, Quint set out to build an alliance of orchestras around the world, all agreeing to present the piece in concert once it was completed. “But I didn’t realize we were going to end up with seven or eight of them,” Quint says with a laugh. “I actually don’t know how many we have right now. As I said, I have a lot going on.”

violinist Philippe Quint performing with orchestra
Philippe Quint. Photo: Evgeny Evtuhov

That the album featuring Wallen’s composition—expected to be released later this year—will also include the Auerbach concerto is particularly satisfying, Quint admits. The Auerbach was, after all, one of the very first pieces he commissioned.


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“It was during our student years, when I approached Lera in a Juilliard hallway and said, ‘What do you think of writing a violin concerto for me?’” he recalls. “And she replied, ‘Absolutely, let’s do that.’ That concerto has had just a few performances, but, you know, the first one was also very special, with the premiere during the inaugural year of the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, which was very exciting. Having these two violin concertos, written for me about 20 years apart, it’s just very nice to think of them on the same recording.

“To me, you know, this is probably the most exciting recording I will have done to date,” Quint continues. “I know I always say that about every recording. All of my releases have been extremely special to me, but some feel closer than others. To have this incredible opportunity to have two violin concertos, written for one musician at opposite sides of their career—this musician who began in Russian and then relocated to America—and to be able to record both of those works on one album, that’s not something that I think a lot of people can say. And I’m just absolutely thrilled. I’m a happy camper.”

It was the moment when I was like, ‘I think I just escaped. I think I’m okay now. I think I’m safe.’

It was in 1991, when he was just 16 years old, that Quint left Russia, boarding a plane for New York all alone, knowing that he’d never use his return-trip ticket. 

“My defection wasn’t as dramatic as in movies like Moscow on the Hudson,” he allows. “It was not as dramatic as Baryshnikov’s exit. But for me, it was very much something I had to do. At that time, I was about to be put into the Soviet army. I had received a notice that if I didn’t show up in the draft office, they were going to come to my house to basically drag me out.”

On his way to the airport—using a planned New Jersey performance as the reason for his flight—he performed a private farewell ritual by destroying his draft notice. “I was so happy to be leaving Russia that I took that notice and I ripped it apart into tiny little pieces and threw them into the snow, because I knew that I wasn’t coming back,” he says. “Now I wish I had kept that notice, because I could put it in a family album. But back then, it was just a happy moment, though it also felt very dangerous, you know, going through the customs in Russia and then arriving at JFK airport in New York. Part of me really could not believe that I was getting out.”

Quint was met at the airport by his uncle and grandparents, who’d made a similar trip years earlier. “That was the first moment of real relief, I think, seeing them at the airport, waiting for me,” he recalls. “It was the moment when I was like, ‘I think I just escaped. I think I’m okay now. I think I’m safe.’ Just a week later, I was playing an audition for Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard.” He got his green card about a year later and became a naturalized citizen in 1998.

Perhaps it is Quint’s sense of having escaped from restriction and fear into freedom and self-discovery that has made him such a relentless champion of modern composers—the fearless creators of a new era of great music—even as he has remained devoted to the classics. That’s part of what he finds so exciting about the music of Errollyn Wallen. Having moved to the UK as a child, then to New York City, and finally back to the UK—Wallen currently lives in a lighthouse on the Orkney Islands in Scotland—she also knows what it’s like to have connections to multiple countries and lives. She studied as a dancer, has written poetry and a 2023 memoir, and now focuses primarily on her composing. In the piece she wrote for Quint, she blended elements from her own life with details from his, including a melody borrowed from an old Yiddish lullaby Quint’s grandfather used to sing to him.

“The concerto has turned out to be a very special work,” he says. “It really addresses all the challenges of a modern violin concerto. It’s been such an enormous pleasure delving into this score, with so many original ideas.” 

It is a three-movement concerto, Quint explains, so in that sense it’s traditional, with a fast-slow-fast structure. “But the voice of it, the freshness of her musical ideas, her harmonic ideas, her rhythmic patterns, it’s something that really stirs my heart,” he notes. “And frankly, that’s what you anticipate when you commission a piece, because there’s still always a danger of ‘What if the next work of this composer is not their greatest work?’ You know? So, obviously, you take a chance.”


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Quint likens it to commissioning a new instrument from a well-known maker. “Whether it’s a bow maker or violin maker, you never know what’s going to come out,” he says. “So, in my case, I feel very fortunate because I think that this concerto is very strong. The chance we took working together has paid off. But, of course, it will be up to the audiences to decide how they feel about the work in the end. But I anticipate that it’s going to be very well received.”

As he prepares to begin rehearsals in Calgary in ten days, still working hard to learn the piece, Quint anticipates that the next steps will be even more exciting. “It will be when Errollyn and I will hear this work for the very, very first time,” he says. “So, it’s three years’ worth of work and communications and exchange of ideas, all of which we bring into that first rehearsal. And then, after the first rehearsal, and after the second rehearsal, and after the world premiere, I know we will be making even more alterations. We will be discussing what didn’t work, what can be improved, what possibly needs to be cut, what possibly needs to be rewritten.”

Quint pauses a moment, then laughs. “Or maybe everything will be perfect, and no revisions will be necessary. It’s totally possible. It’s totally possible.”

Philippe Quint with violin
Philippe Quint. Photo: Isi Akahome

Asked if he would work with Wallen again, Quint’s answer is immediate. “I’ve already commissioned another work from her,” he says. “It’s a much smaller chamber work. We’re going to be working on it, I think, beginning in the fall. After that, I look forward to a second concerto, and maybe a third. Who knows? Errollyn doesn’t know about those yet, by the way. But we’ve had such a good time working together, we do both want to continue as long as possible.”

It is not unusual for someone turning 50 to want to take stock of their past and look toward the future. Quint is no exception. “I have been thinking a lot about what it is that I want to do next, you know, now that I’ve done concertos by Tchaikovsky and Brahms and Mendelssohn and Korngold over 200 times each,” he says. “I have been questioning myself. Do I still have something to say about these pieces? Because, though this is unquestionably great music, how much more do I have to bring to this repertoire? 

“As artists, I feel that it’s our responsibility, first and foremost, to be revolutionaries. That’s what artists can and should be. It’s our mission to be more than just ambassadors for great music, but really to be revolutionaries. I don’t know if the word ‘legacy’ sounds vain and shallow, but at some point, we do have to consider what it is that we have done and still want to do, what kind of mark we want to make on this world—on the music world and the world in general.


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“’Where do I go from here? Where do all of us, as artists and musicians, go from here?’” he continues. “That’s the real question, I think. That’s what I have had on my mind these days. I don’t know, but I look forward to discovering the answers.”

Cinematic Side Hustle 

As if Philippe Quint weren’t busy enough, over the last few years he’s been developing an impressive series of programs that uses live music, spoken word, projections, and other media to tell the stories of extraordinary composers. These programs have looked at the lives and compositions of such people as Johann Sebastian Bach, Astor Piazzolla, and… Charlie Chaplin.

That’s right, the iconic silent movie star. Charlie Chaplin, it turns out, also wrote music. And it was good.

Philippe Quint: Chaplin. Theme from Modern Times aka Smile 2019

“Chaplin has been a very big project for me since January of 2019,” says Quint. “But the process started in 2016 when I first uncovered the fact that Chaplin was a prolific composer.” It was in 2019 that Quint released Chaplin’s Smile: Song Arrangements for Violin & Piano, an album of 13 compositions Chaplin created for some of his most celebrated movies. “When the disc came out on Warner Classics, I was asked to do a little promotional tour, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, you know, just playing Charlie Chaplin’s music for one hour is probably not so enthralling for the audience. But maybe I can mix it with something that would be relevant.’ And then I thought to myself, how did Charlie Chaplin become a composer?”

In search of answers to that question, Quint delved deep into the true story of the Hollywood legend, striding out on what has since become a nearly six-year-long journey of discovering Chaplin as a composer. “You know, everybody knows him as a great comedian, actor, director, and producer,” Quint says. “But after a lot of research, I realized that he’d also written hundreds of songs and that he’d written pretty much all of his soundtracks—and he did so without being able to actually read or write music.”

Quint began putting together a narrative connecting Chaplin’s music to composers that he had either met or who had influenced him. “Of course, the greatest source was Chaplin’s autobiography, where he talks about meetings with Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, even dreaming of writing his own opera or musical someday. That’s actually the end of his autobiography, where he’s citing that he still feels he has enough time to venture into writing an opera. It’s so fascinating, and I think he could have done it, you know, if he lived maybe a little longer.” —DT