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Pinnacle Win

By Claire Sykes

Photo: Donald Lee

The perennially successful Banff International String Quartet Competition continues to evolve its offerings in tandem with a changing field.

Snowy peaks punch through clouds above this small resort town cradled by the Canadian Rockies. Here in Banff, Alberta, a few blocks from the main thoroughfare, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity draws tens of thousands every year to its 43-acre campus. They come for conferences and residencies; exhibitions and workshops; and dance, film, literary and music performances and events.

One of them is the 13th Banff International String Quartet Competition, August 26 to September 1, 2019. Founded in 1983, the festive, triennial event is one of the top string quartet competitions in the world. Open to any group with members younger than 35 at competition time, BISQC catapults the careers of emerging quartets while rousing sold-out audiences of concert presenters, managers, broadcasters, and other music lovers to their feet. Past first-place winners include the Rolston and Jupiter String Quartets, and the Dover, Miró, and Daedalus Quartets.

This year, ten ensembles will compete in public performances for a total of CAN$300,000 in cash and career-boosting prizes. A mentor-in-residence, public lectures, master classes for youth and open mics round out the week. There’ll also be guest performances by the 2016 first-place winner, the Rolston String Quartet; and the Kronos Quartet, accompanied by the live video documentary on the group. In BISQC’s off-years, its celebratory spirit continues with the three-day Banff International String Quartet Festival, featuring past winners and youth in mainstage and community pop-up performances; and lectures, open rehearsals, and late-night chamber music sessions.

For the first time, BISQC first-place winners will receive the Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence Prize. Established in 2015 by Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, in Dallas, Texas, the two-year paid residency (worth US$160,000) is awarded internationally to chamber music groups. Headed up by Aaron Boyd, director of chamber music there, it offers master classes, visitingartist workshops, rehearsal space, and a host of Dallas performances.

“We’re thrilled to have this collaboration with SMU,” says Barry Shiffman, BISQC’s executive director. A violinist and violist, he is also co-founder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which won first place at the competition in 1992. “It’s extremely difficult for a young quartet to launch a career. The success of string quartets is tied directly to universities and quartet competitions. The residency will help the winning quartet develop those skills of interacting with the academic environment, making themselves relevant.”


Photo: Rita Taylor

A post-BISQC, professionally produced recording and Banff Centre-arranged concert tours in Europe and North America also go to the first-place winners. They and the second- and third-place quartets will receive CAN$25,000, CAN$12,000 and CAN$8,000 cash, respectively; plus a fully funded Banff Centre residency, with established-artist coaching and mentorship. The seven groups who don’t make the finals will receive a CAN$4,000 careerdevelopment award. And all will have highdefinition, professionally produced music videos of each of their BISQC performances. “There’s nothing else like this in terms of scale,” says Shiffman.

BISQC started out as a one-time event to honor the Banff Centre’s 50th anniversary. It was dreamed up by the late Kenneth Murphy, cellist and assistant director of the music program there. “The competition grew out of decades of our core programming to train young string quartets. That first year, the CBC had nationally broadcast a lot of the BISQC. By week’s end, they had captured the imagination of the country, breaking all records for listeners of classical music,” says Shiffman.

Now, about 40 string quartets from around the world apply to BISQC. Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, violist with the Dover Quartet, the 2013 first-place winner, is one of three preliminary jurors for 2019. As she views the groups’ videos, “obviously, we’re listening for technical ability, but also a conviction in expression. Does each musician have a unique and strong voice, and does the group as a whole say something greater than the parts?” she says. “I’ll also be listening for what reaches me, emotionally; the audience wants to have that intimate connection with the musicians onstage.”

Pajaro-van de Stadt fondly recalls her time at BISQC: “It was a blast to be around all these quartets, not to mention the audience, who keeps coming back, some for decades, so they get super invested. You feel the energy from everyone when you’re performing. It’s so electric. In general, it’s a very familial and supportive atmosphere, like a reunion with old friends. At the same time, we were all aware that we were at a competition, so there could be some nerve-wracking moments when you had to go onstage.”

“When I’m listening to these groups, I’ll be curious to know how they express what it means to be a quartet in 2019. I’ll be listening for a moral leader, for the truth, something useful for the future. I’ll know it when I hear it, when I’m magnetized.” — David Harrington

Shiffman does what he can to ease the discomfort. Along with dedicated rehearsal spaces for each quartet, BISQC underwrites groups’ transportation, meals, and board. Says Pajaro-van de Stadt, “Everyone is living on the campus, and you’re well fed and rested, so you’re in the best situation to prepare. This is another big thing that sets this competition apart from others.”

One more is the mentor-in-residence, for the youth attending master classes and the competing quartets. “They can play anything they want for me and I’ll ask them how I can best help,” says Joel Krosnick, former cellist with the Juilliard String Quartet and Banff Centre faculty. “I tell them they’ve come this far in BISQC really for the work involved, for their growth in preparing. They’ll get a tremendous amount out of it, whether they win or not.”

ATT Live

Photo: Waleed Shah

Shiffman says, “I think many string quartets see Joel as a father figure. He’s so kind and generous, and artistically brilliant. It’s a safe voice from a respected mentor who can reflect back what you say, or just assure you that all will be OK.”

This year in round one, all ten quartets will play for 50 minutes each a complete Haydn work and one written after 1905. Round two, it’s a complete quartet from the romantic or nationalism period (19th century); or a BISQC-chosen work by Debussy, Ravel, Elgar, or Sibelius. For round three, the audience will listen ten times to a nineminute quartet by contemporary Canadian- Finnish composer Matthew Whittall, cocommissioned by BISQC, the CBC, and the Americas Society. As Shiffman puts it, “It’s a kaleidoscopic experience for them, each time different shapes and colors.” Round four presents one Schubert work from a BISQC list, plus the choice of any unrepeated repertoire. The three round-five finalists will play a complete Beethoven quartet, again from the list.

“The string quartet as a force in our culture remains unparalleled in its ability to express so much about the inner aspects of life. That’s one thing that music can do, beautifully,” says David Harrington, violinist with the Kronos Quartet, and one of eight BISQC jurors. Their number ratings are algorithm-ranked, and overseen by professional mathematicians. “When I’m listening to these groups, I’ll be curious to know how they express what it means to be a quartet in 2019. I’ll be listening for a moral leader, for the truth, something useful for the future. I’ll know it when I hear it, when I’m magnetized.”

For the Dover Quartet, winning first place at BISQC expanded their performance range and musical depth. Says Pajaro-van de Stadt, “The competition is so well respected that when we won, we went from maybe 30 to about 150 concerts that first year. In this context, every concert is a continuous exploration of whatever we’re playing. The pieces feel like they’re living and breathing, because we might play them 80 or more times in a year. That’s made us more open-minded as to how we play and interpret them. They change concert to concert.”

The positive impact doesn’t stop with the quartets. Because of BISQC, says Shiffman, “there’s been an explosive growth in the chamber music-festival environment. People come from all over the world for the competition, then go back and create concert series in their own communities. Never has it been more relevant and important to identify the best of the next generation of string quartets.”

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. Along with this magazine, her music articles have appeared in Strings, Bass World, Piano & Keyboard, Opera News, The Wire, Musicworks, and others. She also covers the visual arts, health and bioscience, philanthropy, and business.

© 2019 Chamber Music America