interview with Philippe Quint: Guardian Angels and 'Opera Breve'

January 30, 2014, 9:04 PM · What do you do, when the words of a song speak to you from beyond the grave, when they come to haunt you in the most comforting way?

Russian-born American violinist Philippe Quint decided to make a project of it, called Opera Breve. It's a recording of some of opera's most beautiful melodies, but sung on the violin, sometimes with virtuoso embellishment, with accompaniment from pianist Lily Maisky.

Philippe Quint
Photo Credit: Benjamin Brolet

Laurie: What is the first opera that you can remember attending, and what were your impressions of it?

Philippe: The very first opera I attended -- I remember vividly. It was Eugene Onegin, and it was at the Kremlin Theater in Moscow. It was a glorious production, and I was absolutely blown away by the set, by the decorations, by the singers, and especially by the music of Tchaikovsky. Of course, one of the most devastating scenes is when Onegin shoots the poor Lensky, the kid that's so in love with Olga. I was still hoping that maybe he was just wounded, maybe in the last act, he was going to come back, and somehow be resurrected! (He laughs) But I realize now, then it wouldn't be a Russian opera, it would not be a Russian libretto! Somebody has to die at the end, like in a lot of plays by Chekhov; for example, The Seagull, which has a similarly devastating ending.

But that was my first trip to the opera, so one of the first works that was selected for "Opera Breve" was the Lensky aria that was arranged by Leopold Auer. There were several core works that started this CD.

Laurie: Among them was a transcription that you did for your friend, Hannah Noether, according to your program notes. Tell me about that, how did you meet her?

Philippe: When I first came to the United States in 1991, I came here mostly thanks to her. One of my relatives gave her a cassette tape of my playing. She heard my tape, which she forwarded to Dorothy DeLay for further listening. Then, of course, Dorothy DeLay heard the tape and said that she would be happy to accept me in her studio, upon an audition. If I ever were to get to New York City, she would be happy to listen to me.

That happened around 1989-90, and then in 1991, I was able to come to the States and audition for her studio. She accepted me. I met Mrs. Noether around the same time, and then she became my guardian angel, so to say, and a mentor. She was one of the first people to give me the green light and make me believe that I could do this, that I was on the right path. She was always there for me with advice, with guidance, and I was always so grateful to her.

After many years of performing at her series, the Larchmont Music Chamber Circle, we'd become great friends. One day she called me up and she asked me if I was familiar with the opera, Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck. And of course, I knew about the existence of the opera, but I hadn't had a chance to see it live or even to hear it on record. It's not one of the mainstream operas, still to this day, even though it's probably Humperdinck's claim-to-fame and in a way, his one-hit wonder.

So she said, "Would you mind listening to this opera, and in particular, I want you to pay attention to the aria called the Evening Prayer. It's a very special aria to me, and I would love for you to make a transcription for violin and piano and perform it for me at one of the house concerts."

I said, "Absolutely, I'd be delighted!" I quickly found the opera, and I was actually very pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the opera was; I felt a little embarrassed that I was not familiar with that glorious work. So I listened to the Evening Prayer ("Abendsegen") which was just, I felt, a beautiful aria to transcribe. It's in German. A couple of weeks later I recorded it and sent her the CD -- it was just a very basic recording in a friend's apartment, just so she had the music.

Unfortunately, before I could perform it for her, she passed away. The first time I played the transcription was at her funeral, so it was very sad. Afterwards, somehow I came across the text of this aria, and I became very curious about the meaning. I noticed the very touching words:

When at night I go to sleep
Fourteen angels watch do keep
Two my head are guarding
Two my feet are guiding
Two are on my right hand
Two are on my left hand
Two who warmly cover
Two who o’er me hover
Two to whom ’tis given
To guide my steps to heaven.

That's when I realized, this had not been just a simple commission. It was a little bit like a mini-requiem for her, something that was so meaningful. That was a very touching moment, when I realized that.

And I still hear her words in my head, and I probably will for many, many years. One of her favorite things to say was, "Philippe, you always have to figure out a way to jump over hurdles." It's great advice: how we pass the obstacles in our lives, it's always a challenge.

Laurie: It's interesting to play something on the violin, that was written for voice. I wondered, do you think about the words? Especially now that you had that experience of realizing the significance afterwards?

Philippe: In order to prepare for this CD, I listened to a lot of renditions of these arias by different singers, and I also went into all the librettos of all those operas to research and really understand what the words meant, and how the music was composed. Certainly, knowing the text and the meaning gives all the arias much more substance.

I really feel that those beautiful arias fall on a stringed instrument extremely well. So I wasn't really trying to emulate voice, although voice, of course, was my inspiration. I hope I'm not being blasphemous with saying this, but I feel that the stringed instrument has an advantage over voice in many cases! There are more effects that we can do, there are more colors that we can do, we have a much bigger dynamic range, we have also much bigger general range (pitch). And we can also do double-stops -- it takes at least two singers to do that, unless you're Bobby McFerrin!

The essence of the word "aria," which comes from the Latin word, "aer," is "atmosphere." So "aria" is an atmosphere. What was important, was to create that sort of atmosphere. For me, the entire program has become a musical personal journey, full of correlations in my life. I probably could have called this album "Atmosphere," but I think maybe it would have been picked up by the Weather Channel! (He laughs) So I decided to call it "Opera Breve" because it's opera in brief. I really wanted to see how much I could organically expand (these arias) with what the violin can do. How can it benefit the music, how can it possibly enhance an aria? So that was the mission.

Laurie: Tell me about your partnership with Lily Maisky.

Philippe: Lily Maisky is of course the daughter of the great cellist Mischa Maisky. Lily and I met in Brussels about five years ago, and we always contemplated the idea of doing an album together. Lily was somebody who really contributed with programming; some of the choices actually came through her. One wonderful discovery was Morgen, by Richard Strauss. It is not from an opera, but it's such a beautiful song that we just couldn't resist. It was also an arrangement by her father, Mischa Maisky; he plays this as an encore at many of his performances.

She was also the one to suggest the Cantabile by Saint-Saens, from Samson and Delilah, which is another glorious opera. And then, several more works that we jointly agreed to do, had some meaning in each of our lives.

Laurie: What was the most virtuosic piece in this collection?

Philippe: I would definitely say that the most virtuosic piece was from the "Figaro" from the Barber of Seville (called Paraphrase on Largo al factotum.) It is fiendishly difficult. It was arranged by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco for Heifetz to play, and of course Heifetz played it beautifully. So in terms of virtuosity, this was by far the most difficult work but also so much fun to do. It's so comical and humorous and sarcastic in every possible way. That's what I was trying to bring out for this particular piece.

Laurie: Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" is one of my favorite operas. What made you decide to include these arrangements by Heifetz?

Philippe: Gershwin for me is very special, it's extremely special! Growing up in the Soviet Union, I did not have that much exposure to American music -- but Gershwin was maybe the only American composer that I knew about in Russia. And I didn't even know that he had written "Porgy and Bess," as an opera. All I had was a smuggled tape of Jascha Heifetz that somebody brought to our family, and there was a rendition of It Ain't Necessarily So on it. I must have been 10 years old, and I was absolutely convinced that this was just a great violin and piano work! I listened to it over and over and over. Imagine my surprise, when I came to the United States and found out first of all, there are many more transcriptions, and second, this comes from a great opera! Of course, I listened to the entire opera and those absolutely glorious voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. So this was actually a dream for me, to put Gershwin on record, because it's had so much meaning for me.

My first arrival in the United States was what they like to call, "culture shock." It was quite a difference, going from Moscow to New York. And getting adjusted, getting acquainted with a new life, going to Juilliard -- all those memories, reflections, and associations went into each piece on the album.

Here are links to "Opera Breve" on Amazon and on iTunes.

BELOW: a live rehearsal recording of Philippe Quint and Lily Maisky playing Cantabile from Saint-Saens' opera, "Samson et Dalila." Philippe plays the 1708 "Ruby" Strad, on loan through The Stradivari Society.


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