Music & the movies
It's hard enough making it in the arts world. Not even a Juilliard education guarantees that a student will be employed in the their chosen field. Those that do are the fortunate ones, usually exhibiting a combination of superhuman determination, unexplainable talent and a dash of luck.
Meet Russian-born violinist Philippe Quint. Though his music career has been studded with incredible accomplishments at a relatively young age, the thirtysomething year-old — who's shy about revealing his exact age — landed a huge break in the film industry.
As the main protagonist in David Grubin's Downtown Express, Quint plays Sasha, an emerging Juilliard violinist who while preparing for his big debut recital gets sidetracked by collaborations outside of the classical music world. Sasha's journey parallels his own.
"I am glad you said musician who acts rather than an actor/musician. Can you really call yourself something without studying the craft in depth? If you paint, does it make you a painter? If you rhyme, can you call yourself a poet?"
Just coming off a major recording project, CultureMap caught up with Quint in New York to get insider intel on his upcoming performance in Houston in conjunction with the opening night movie for Cinema Arts Festival Houston on Nov. 9.
CM: So, about Juilliard, very intense. Having studied with Dorothy Delay and knowing how demanding she was on her students, how did you evolve from a classical musician to a musician/celeb who dabbles in acting?
Philippe Quint: The word celebrity has a negative connection. I don't know why (laughs). I am glad you said musician who acts rather than an actor/musician. Can you really call yourself something without studying the craft in depth? If you paint, does it make you a painter? If you rhyme, can you call yourself a poet?
I am trying to learn more and more about film acting. I have had always an interest in the parallel worlds of music and theater — I believe they are more similar than different.
CM: How did the opportunity come about? You literally walked into a movie role.
PQ: I have to confess I have been curious about theater and film since my childhood days in the Soviet Union. I would dress up as my favorite characters. I suppose I had an affinity for imitation, becoming characters I found interesting.
At the time, it wasn't a good idea for me to follow that passion. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, my grandparents got me started on violin. I could avoid military service — my safety blanket — if music was my profession.
When came to the United States in 1991, I started to think about it again. If I took on a role, it would have to be the right character. I can't see myself playing a rocket scientist, a double agent, it just wouldn't fit.
I was finishing up at Juilliard when I received a phone call from a friend director David Grubin and I shared in common. He was interviewing folks from the Russian community to work and craft a script for a new film.
When he told me about the leading character, my heart stopped, but I couldn't show it. This is it, I thought, and asked for the opportunity to read for the part. Though I didn't have experience, I talked my way into it.
Six months later, I read for the panel. I worked very hard on the script and later, was offered the part.
CM: How did you prepare for the role?
PQ: I started to take acting classes. In between violin concerts and tours, I tried to learn all I could about the craft of acting. As a musician, I know what it takes to be on stage, I know what it's like to learn a skill.
You know the term natural actor? That applies to people who show up well on camera, are photogenic, they speak convincingly and they get some sort of nomination. That wasn't me. I found it quite hard.
The funniest moment was when I decided to learn the famous Hamlet monolog. Rather hilarious to hear it performed with a Russian accent.
CM: About your character, Sasha. Your own story and his appear to be similar. Was it like playing yourself? How are you similar and different?
PQ: It's a bit of a case of art imitating life. While the film was in production, I was turning into Sasha. I was collaborating with jazz musicians, country fiddlers — I started to experience and partake in things I would never have done if this movie didn't come into my life.
I am like Sasha, growing up in a conservative classical music atmosphere. Like him, I was very obedient growing up. I did what my parents told me. But he's definitely more naive and rebellious than me.
CM: How do you think Dorothy Delay would react if she were alive today?
PQ: I have no idea (laughs). She had a gift. She was able to narrow down what particular skill her students had. She knew who fit where. If someone had contemporary aptitudes, she would explore that with them. If someone had an knack for baroque music, she would push that route. Sometimes I forget she's no longer with us.
If she knew that my interest in acting came from the heart, she would have supported it. She was a brilliant woman and I think she should have appreciated what I did with the project, even though it wasn't at the center of what I really did at the time.
The entire show I am playing the violin and depict how classical music training really is.
CM: Do you worry that with dabbling in acting that you will no longer be accepted as a powerhouse classical artist? You know how conservative the classical music world can be at times.
PQ: Not really. Artists like Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma consistently experiment with different genres. It's not something that's shocking anymore.
Somebody will appreciate the movie, though I am prepared for those that will say something negative. I won't stop experimenting with other artistic genres. If there's an interesting project, I will explore it.
CM: And what happens next? What interesting projects are you looking into? More acting perhaps? Major classical music tours?
We just finished the Mendelssohn and Bruch Violin Concertos, scheduled to be released in March 2012 on the Avanti label. Who really needs another recording of these staples? I have played them all my life and love the music so dearly that after 20 years experience with them, I feel like I have something fresh and new to say.
Cinema Arts Festival Houston kicks off Nov. 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston with a screening of David Grubin's Downtown Express starring violinist Philippe Quint. The opening festivities will also include a live performance by the Quint.