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Wednesday, January 2,2013

Of movies and monuments

'Red Violin,' Brahms anchor first LSO concert of 2013

by Lawrence Cosentino
The birches are bare and solace is scarce in mid-Michigan, but the Lansing Symphony’s first concert of 2013 promises a pore-clearing steam bath of epic proportions.

Brooding, dynamic violinist Philippe Quint will be the guest soloist in a lush triple bill anchored by Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony. Also on the slate is a seldom-performed hothouse flower by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, “Brazilian Impressions.”

The night will glow reddest when Quint, a Russian-born virtuoso with passion and charisma to spare, joins maestro Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra to play the sweeping, dramatic chaconne from the film “The Red Violin” by American composer John Corigliano.

“To me, this is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century for violin,” Muffitt said. “It’s 17 minutes of perfect music.”

The chaconne’s movie connection is key for Quint, who loves old-school Hollywood scores and recently played the lead (as a Russian-born violinist living in America, duh!) in the 2011 film “Downtown Express.” 

In “The Red Violin,” a series of storm surges and serene idylls crash and lap by turns at the shores of a repeated melody, the chaconne of the title. The music harks back to a high craft of story telling in sound long before the formulaic grinding of today’s film music. (Chaconne from “Transformers 2,” anyone?)

“The Red Violin” follows a violin as it passes through the lives of its owners, a journey the chaconne re-creates on the concert stage. Music adapted from a movie that is about music — how neat a circle is that?

“It merges the two worlds in one piece,” Quint said. “It appeals to the audience on so many levels. It’s passionate, it’s very virtuosic. It’s difficult for the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra. And yet it’s very melodic.”

One of Quint’s musical heroes is legendary film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. “He’s been called a Hollywood composer, but he created the essence of the sound, almost Wagnerian, Mahlerian,” Quint said. (Quint made a shattering recording of Korngold’s violin concerto on the Naxos label in 2009.) “Corigliano, in a way, took the torch from Korngold, keeping it on an extremely high level.”

Quint fell into film acting by accident. Because the script of “Downtown Express” dealt with the Russian community in New York, someone suggested Quint as a consultant to Michael Hausman, producer of “Amadeus,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Gangs of New York” and dozens of other films. Like the film’s protagonist, Quint came to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia (in 1991), studied at Juilliard and was game to cross over into other kinds of music. (One of Quint’s sidelines, The Quint Quintet, specializes in tango music.)

Hausman knew Quint could sail through the film’s violin bits, no dubbing needed, but to the filmmakers’ surprise, he also showed a strong screen presence. Quint tried out and ended up playing the lead.

“I thought I was going to Hollywood the next day,” Quint said with a laugh. “Little did I know that these projects take a lot of time to get off the ground.”

Quint found acting every bit as demanding as playing the violin. While Hausman and his team worked on financing the film, Quint took acting lessons and acted in a few plays.

“I did not want to be one of those people who just shows up in front of the camera, says a few lines and thinks it’s acting,” he said.

But he also found that the two disciplines have a lot in common. “One of the most important things, for a musician and an actor, is to stay in the moment. Another is being able to listen to your partner on stage.”

Muffitt is also looking forward to introducing Lansing audiences to the little-heard “Brazilian Impressions,” by Respighi.

“After you hear it, you wonder why it isn’t one of the greatest hits of classical music,” Muffitt said. “It’s full of dance rhythms and captures the atmosphere of a tropical night. It’s a piece I’ve wanted to do for decades.”

After reading the weird instruction “slitheringly” in the score, Muffitt looked into the music’s history and found that Respighi wrote the second movement after visiting a reptile facility in Sao Paolo.

“He was kind of creeped out by the experience,” Muffitt said. “He came home and wrote this very reptilian second movement.” 

When talk turns to the Saturday’s orchestral thunder lizard, Brahms’ mighty First Symphony, words begin to fail, even for Muffitt, who confessed to feeling “intimidated.”

“This music is so perfect, more so than any other composer,” Muffitt said. “Every note is right where it belongs. There isn’t anything extraneous or anything missing. We have so much responsibility here. It’s as if someone gave you the Mona Lisa over the weekend for safekeeping.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Featuring violinist Philippe Quint
8 p.m. Jan. 5
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall
$15-50
(517) 432-2000
whartoncenter.com

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