When talking to the young and talented pianist Julien Quentin, it became obvious to me that this generation of young, classical musicians - at least the successful ones-- have definitely adopted something of a jetsetter lifestyle.
I had just met him at Verbier, where he performed for his 5th summer in a row, at the prestigious music festival. Two years ago he had performed at their special celebration “Night of Pianists” that featured different generations of accomplished pianists, Emanuel Ax, Nelson Goerner, Yuja Wang, among others. The festival’s artistic director Martin Engstroem had spotted Quentin, when he had heard his 2004 recording with clarinetist Julian Bliss.
Quentin confirmed the positive impressions I had brought back from Verbier myself (see also my article Musicerati at Verbier):”Verbier is really special in that all the star- artists are all happy to play the game… old and young, everybody is sharing the stage together and there are such musical fireworks.”
Born in Paris, Quentin grew up in Geneva, where his parents opened the “Librairie Quentin,” a connoisseur’s bookstore specializing in rare manuscripts and art books.
He attended both the local High School at Thonon to receive the French baccalaureate and the Conservatory at Geneva, where he studied with the Russian Piano Pedagogue Alexis Golovine.
It was through his teacher that Quentin met with Martha Argerich, who, at the time was residing in Geneva.
He describes listening to the recording of Golovine playing two-piano repertoire with Argerich and how that inspired him tremendously.
Quentin became friends with Argerich’s daughters, two of whom, Stephanie and Lyda still reside in Geneva, while Argerich herself lives in Brussels now.
He describes the most fascinating meeting with one of Argerich’s close friends and an important musical figure, Nikita Magaloff. “One time, as I visited Nikita's home, who let me play for him. He gave me some advice but, most importantly, he acknowledged that I had enough talent to make a life in music. That was a defining moment for me, giving me the self-confidence, to continue on the road I had always felt, was meant for me. It is a wonderful feeling if you know what you want in life. Growing up, a lot of my friends did not know what they wanted to achieve, they had to find themselves. I had a normal upbringing with sports, art and literature all around me. If my parents pushed me, they did that more for my general studies, than for music. I only had my first serious concert at 12, in Thonon. Then right after this in evian at the Rostropovich Auditorium and since then the sirens of the stage haunted me.”
Julien Quentin at Verbier Photo: Marc Shapiro
Quentin went on to continue his studies in the United States receiving his Artist Diploma with Emile Naoumoff, at Indiana University and then his Graduate Diploma in New York, under György Sándor, from Juilliard in 2003.
He shared a lot of his insights, such as why it is so important to understand the individuality of each pianist and what works for him personally: “Every pianist has certain abilities and experiences things differently, learning in unique ways. A lot depends on your individual preference but also on things like your discipline, for example. Also everybody is physically built in ways that influence their particular abilities and ways to function better. For me personally, I could sight read music for hours on end, but the physical playing at the instrument was not as easy to handle for several hours in a row as some others can,” says Quentin. He remembers how he once talked with Argerich about how she accomplished so much in such little time, and he quotes her saying:”Whether you take a week, a day or a minute, what counts is the result.”
“At the end it is really about what you can do and what makes you do it,” says Quentin.
“ You need the will for it since it is solitary work, otherwise you can forget any kind of great music making. But whether it is one or two focused hours or ten hours, which I rarely have the tolerance for physically or mentally, it differs for each pianist, or in pedagogue’s Heinrich Neuhaus’ words:”You can practice at the piano with the score and with the score without the piano, or you can practice without the score and without the piano,” which I do a lot, actually. This mental kind of practicing works really well for me, it gets you a better understanding of the musical scope of the score. It is a very abstract way of learning but it really makes you picture in your mind an ideal line or singing phrase, which you are sometimes too busy to do, while working things out physically. If you think about conductors and composers…that’s how they often figure out the bigger picture.”
The development of the so called inner ear, which this method certainly favors, is certainly an inherently important enhancement of musicality and the understanding of a score, and it is clearly helpful with memorization and in generally developing the musical imagination.
Quentin, whose technique has been deemed as “flawless” by the press, tries to follow, what he describes as the natural approach of the so called Russian School, which his first teacher brought to his attention and which, in his esteem in a nutshell, enables one to do more, with less.
This technique encourages the pianist to lead from the forearm, rather than from the fingers themselves, moving effortlessly and efficiently. One can support a particular singing quality of the melodic line, by weight distribution of the forearm.
Great Russian teachers traveled a lot to Europe and America, especially with the fall of the Iron Curtain, but even before that. It may be that with the virtuosic Russian repertoire of the 20th century itself, which he feels at home with intimately, (besides his Russian teachers, his mother’s roots are Polish-Russian, Jewish) influenced a tradition that could be traced back to the great pedagogues like Neuhaus.
But Quentin is also a child of his environment and time. He absorbed French Impressionism and embraces New Music, especially since his time in New York.
After his American years at school, Quentin was no stranger to the club-scene of his generation. “Turntables, weekly shows in bars and lofts, jam sessions and electro jazz were on the agenda at all times; mixing music, inviting other musicians to play together was a very social experience. I enjoyed it tremendously. It was an eye and ear opener for me, just to see how our friends in the audience would react. This was a fresh experience, where we generated crossovers between two worlds. Supporting new composers is almost a duty of a young performer. These are compositions of today’s life, just as it was the case a century or two ago. I am always interested in connecting different works and in collaborations of different techniques and art forms. “
Berlin became Quentin’s latest place of choice, which he loves for its active musical life, allowing him to experiment with new combinations of paired recitals of classical and new music. He likes to use live effects with the piano and add loops and electronic backgrounds and beats to it, developing his own musical blend, which can easily involve improvisation at the piano, with the laptop getting into the picture as well.
For all its possibilities, but mostly for its particular charm, he loves Berlin and for its slightly slower pace. “No rush, wherever I go I have friends who perform and by now I am really lucky, since all work is coming to me via email or phone. “ This youtube video shows Julien with an avid collaborator of his, the violinist David Garrett having fun with Rimsky-Korsakov's " The Flight of the Bumblebee"Flight of the Bumblebee.
His next gigs are in the planning: He would like to produce his own electro tracks and therefore is in touch with the likes of American composer/producer Justin Messina & British producer Martin Wheeler (aka Vector Lovers) to collaborate on future productions. Other jam and studio sessions are also scheduled in the next few weeks in Berlin with various artists from the electronic music and jazz scene.