BISQC: Marmen and Viano Share First Prize


Banff, Alberta — The 2019 Banff International String Quartet Competition ended in an unprecedented tie on Sunday afternoon. Both the Marmen Quartet from Great Britain and the Viano Quartet, with members from Canada and the US, split the prize money assigned to the first place and third place laureates, giving each group $16,500. The organizers decided to award the second-place cash prize of $12,000 to the American Callisto Quartet

Because of this unusual result, the logistics of distributing some of the other perks for winning, such as the two-year residency at Southern Methodist University in Dallas worth $160,000 and multiple tours in North America and Europe, which would ordinarily go to just one group, will need to be worked out, competition direct Barry Shiffman said.

The Southern Methodist sojourn was added to this BISQC’s prize pool. And from the stage, about two hours after the jury began deliberating, Shiffman also said that the St. Lawrence String Quaret, in longterm residency at Stanford, wants to host the winners in various ways as well. This opportunity was offered only a couple of days ago, said Shiffman, who was a founding member of the St. Lawrence, which won BISQC in 1992, and the St. Lawrence has maintained a close relationship with the Banff Centre ever since.

At a short press conference following the awards ceremony, both quartets were emphatic that they never want to participate in a competition again. But violinist Johannes Marmen didn’t dismiss the value of competing to build an excellent ensemble. “Competitions for music seem like a really silly idea because it’s not quantifiable like sports. There’s this notion that it can’t really be done, and there’s some truth to that. But I also think that it’s not possible to do well in a competition unless you fully commit to what you believe in as an artist because that’s how you convince your audience and, in the end, the jury. Although there seem to be many things that seem wrong about competitions, they can bring out artistry too.” The Marmen Quartet had won or placed high in several other competitions before coming to Banff.

Throughout the weeklong competition, both Marmen and Viano displayed consistently high quality performances. Marmen impressed the jury with their playing of a compulsory Hayden quartet on day one. They received an additional $3,000 for their performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 50, No. 1. Marmen and Viano also shared the $3,000 prize for the best performance in Round Three of the commissioned quartet, Bright Ferment, by Canadian-Finnish composer Matthew Whittall.

After the seven quartets who didn’t make the final were revealed late Saturday night, the remaining three played a late Beethoven quartet on Sunday afternoon. At that point, there were still 38 points at stake, 25 for the Beethoven and each judge had 13 at their discretion.

Marmen Quartet in the Finals, Photo: Jessica Wittman, Banff Centre

Marmen performed 
the Beethoven String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, and except for a small lapse in the Presto movement, they demonstrated all the excellent qualities evident in earlier rounds.

Viano Quartet in the Finals, Photo: Jessica Wittman, Banff Centre

Viano played the less sublime String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59 No. 3. Once again the virtuosity of violinist Hao Zhou was on full display, and with the opportunity to dazzle, he and his cohorts concluded their BISQC final with a succession of increasingly faster repeats in the Allegro molto that inevitably brought the packed Eric Harvie Theatre audience to its feet.

Callisto offered the String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2, but their effort fell short of the quality exhibited by the other two ensembles. In fact, the prevailing opinion was that any one of several other quartets could have filled that third Sunday spot.

This jury included the Kronos Quartet’s founder David Harrington, who after more than 40 years in the string quartet business had never been on a competition jury. It was only through Shiffman’s gentle coaxing that he agreed to do it this time. Although he wouldn’t do an interview about his experience, caught on his way to the post-competition reception, he did say that he’d had a very positive experience in Banff, and would consider being a juror again, if asked.

Shiffman and his associates succeeded in making BISQC as benign a week of string quartet music-making as possible, and also relaxed and enjoyable for the hundreds of audience members, some of whom have been coming since the first one in 1983. There were also many first-timers this year.

Some of that positive energy Harrington alluded to was evident in more casual settings as well. The campus pub was set up with what was affectionately known as the Esterhàzy Castle, in honour of Hayden’s well-known place of work. Over the course of the week, amateurs and professionals read through quartets after hours, and one evening five of the actually jury members showed up to play, another unprecedented moment in the history of this competition.

The next BISQC will be in 2022, and by then, thanks to a large donation from an anonymous Calgary philanthropist and longtime supporter of the Banff Centre, the aging Eric Harvie Theatre will receive an estimated $7 million refurbishment, including new seats, improved accessibility (for the many walkers and canes among the BISQC patrons), and better sightlines. After sitting through roughly 30 hours of string quartets, the audience cheered to hear that the well-worn, threadbare seats they had occupied for the week would be no more.

All the BISQC rounds have been archived at and Facebook.


Here is the official press release:


First Prize of the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition has been awarded jointly to Marmen Quartet and Viano Quartet in an an unprecedented jury decision. 

In an unprecedented jury decision, the Marmen Quartet from the UK comprised of Johannes Marmen (violin), Bryony Gibson-Cornish (violist), Steffan Morris (cellist) and Ricky Gore (violin) together with the Viano String Quartet from Canada/USA comprised of Lucy Wang (violin), Hao Zhou (violin), Aiden Kane (viola), Tate Zawadiuk (cello) have won one of the most coveted prizes in chamber music at the 13th Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

The two quartets won at the end of the 7 days of competition out of a field of 10 competing ensembles from around the world. Throughout the week the quartets have performed in the Recital Round, the Romantic Round, the Canadian Commission Round, and the Shubertplus Round. On Sunday, each of the three finalists performed a complete work by Beethoven. After two hours of deliberations, the jury of 7 selected both quartets as winners of the top prize.

Prize winners include:

First Prize: First Prize has been awarded jointly to the Marmen Quartet (UK) and Viano String Quartet (Can/USA).

Each of the two quartets will receive $16,500 cash prize, and will share concert tours of over 40 major markets in Europe and North America, a creative residency at Banff Centre for recording opportunities, as well as coaching and mentorship opportunities.

Southern Methodist University Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence Prize the first prize laureates will share a two-year paid residency worth $160,000 USD at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

Esterházy Foundation Prize: A recital in Haydn Hall at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt (Austria), will be shared by the First Prize Laureates. The Prize includes artist fees and travel expenses.

St. Lawrence String Quartet Prize at Stanford University: will also be shared by First Prize Laureates is a fully-funded invitation to the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) Chamber Music Seminar in 2020 or 2021, combined with a one-time position as resident string quartet for Stanford University’s summer Pre-Collegiate Studies Program, directly following the Seminar.

Second Prize: Callisto Quartet (USA) receives a $12,000 cash prize and creative residency at Banff Centre including coaching and mentorship opportunities valued at $15,000.

R.S. Williams & Sons Haydn Prize: Marmen Quartet (UK) receives a $3,000 prize for the best performance of a Haydn quartet from Round One of the competition.

Canadian Commission Prize in honour of the R.S. Williams & Sons Company: Awarded jointly to Marmen Quartet (UK) and Viano Quartet (Can/USA), is a $3,000 prize for the best performance in Round Three of the commissioned quartet, Bright Ferment by Canadian-Finnish composer Matthew Whittall.

The Anderson Career Development Award of $4,000 is presented to all seven quartets not selected to the final round.

“Anybody who witnessed the remarkable music making in Banff this week knows that the art of the string quartet is being pursued at an all time high. The artistry of the Viano and Marmen Quartets deserve the 1stprize of this much loved competition. While this an unprecedented result in the history of the Banff International String Quartet Competition, it is the result of an abundance of talent.”

The competition, which takes place every three years, has launched the careers of many successful quartets internationally including the Rolston String Quartet in 2016 and the Dover Quartet in 2013.

The competing quartets come from around the globe and are some of the finest classical musicians emerging on the world stage today. Chosen by a jury of internationally celebrated musicians, the  finalists competed for awards worth over $300,000 in cash and prizes, the most generous prize in chamber music internationally.

This year, thanks to a new collaboration, the first prize winner will be awarded the Southern Methodist University Peak Fellowship Ensemble in Residence Prize, a paid two-year residency in Dallas, Texas. This, in addition to generous cash prizes, residency opportunities at Banff Centre, and a three-year artistic and career development program, makes the triennial chamber music competition one of the top events of its kind.

Banff Centre would like to thank all supporters including the Azrieli Foundation, and media partners including the CBC and the Violin Channel for sharing the concerts online and on CBC Radio. Banff Centre acknowledges support from the Government of Alberta, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Canada Council.

About Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity: Founded in 1933, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is a learning organization built upon an extraordinary legacy of excellence in artistic and creative development. What started as a single course in drama has grown to become the global organization leading in arts, culture, and creativity across dozens of disciplines. From our home on Treaty 7 territory in the stunning Canadian Rocky Mountains, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity aims to inspire everyone who attends our campus – artists, leaders, and thinkers – to unleash their creative potential and realize their unique contribution to society through cross-disciplinary learning opportunities, world-class performances, and public outreach.



About Author

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer. He is the Canadian correspondent for the American Record Guide and regular contributor to Opera Canada. He has also written features for La Scena Musicale, and contributed stories and reviews to the Globe and Mail, Gramophone, and other publications. He was staff classical music writer for the Edmonton Journal in the early '80s.

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