By Charlotte Lilley

The Calgary Philharmonic’s upcoming concert titled Tchaikovsky 5 is set to feature the world premiere of acclaimed composer Errollyn Wallen’s new Violin Concerto. A huge creative and technical undertaking, the performance also marks a major milestone in a years-long collaborative process for Philippe Quint, the violinist for whom the concerto was written. “It’s hard to imagine that it’s been almost three years since we started talking about it, and now we’re six weeks away from the premiere,” he explained in an interview.

Philippe’s creative collaboration with Errollyn was born out of a chance encounter with her music several years ago. Struck by her skill at writing for the violin, Philippe sought out more of her work and was “just blown away.”

“I mean, there is no other way to describe the impression that I first had of her music but just to say it was an incredibly fresh voice.”

Soon after, Philippe approached Calgary Philharmonic Music Director Rune Bergmann about a potential commission, and work began on what would become Errollyn Wallen’s first violin concerto.

Over the past three years, Philippe has worked closely with Errollyn on the piece’s development. “[Errollyn] wanted to write a piece that would be meaningful to me and her,” Philippe recalled, and the finished composition follows through on this, drawing inspiration from stories from Philippe’s childhood and lullabies sung by his grandfather. His technical expertise has also proven invaluable in fine-tuning the piece’s details: “It’s mostly me saying [something] may not be possible for violin, and then we do an adjusted version,” he explained. “We talk about tiny little details such as accents and dynamics and what could be possible, what would be more effective.” 

This open dialogue with the concerto’s composer marks an exciting departure from how Philippe typically prepares for a performance. “I only wish I could email Brahms about my ideas in a concerto and say ‘Hey, I know this concerto has now been performed for over 100 years, but I just got this idea that you should consider’,” he joked. “Luckily, with Errollyn that’s exactly what I’m doing!”

Along with this collaborative approach comes new opportunities to push the musical envelope. Within the concerto, Errollyn and Philippe have been able to “expand beyond what’s already been done on violin and look for extra effects, stretching the boundaries of what has traditionally been already accepted and done, and seeing how far [they] can push it.” That said, Philippe was careful to note that they “didn’t want anything contrived for the sake of effect.” 

“[Errollyn’s] music is heart on the sleeve, and this is my approach towards music and life in general,” he explained. “I like a very honest, organic way of working. Bruckner’s symphonies are known for their drama, tension and great climatic moments — especially for the brass section. Still not convinced? In this video, hear our talented trombone section play Bruckner’s First Aequale in C minor.

While Errollyn and Philippe’s collaboration has shaped the concerto throughout its composition, it will take a much larger ensemble and plenty of technical skill to bring the piece to life for its first public audiences. “It’s going to be violinistically very challenging, and in a way athletic; it will require enormous amounts of concentration and focus,” Philippe noted. “And the same focus will also be necessary for the maestro and for the orchestra.”

“We will all come together to convey an idea of a composer, mixed with the interpretation that we will create. We are sort of the transformers, responsible for bringing this music to the world.”

That role of transformer — especially for a new work such as Errollyn’s — comes with a unique sense of accountability and responsibility, the “desire to make the best impact possible.” With the piece’s reception and legacy unknown, Philippe hopes above all that the concerto will resonate with its listeners. “You just hope for the audience to be touched. Nothing is more rewarding for an artist and a composer than a positive reaction from the audience.”

Building on years of collaboration, and with clear hopes in sight for these first performances, Philippe’s own feeling as he prepares to take the stage at the Jack Singer Concert Hall is one of excitement. “It’s a world premiere!” he explained. “It’s just so monumental, you know? I can’t stress enough how exciting it is.” Philippe Quint performs Errollyn Wallen’s Violin Concerto on 15 + 16 March. Get you tickets at the button below.