BANFF, ALTA. – The 13th triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) began Aug. 26 with 10 contenders over two days performing one Haydn quartet from a prescribed list and one quartet written after 1905.
The Haydn component gives a nod to the father of the string quartet form. Hearing one of Haydn’s musically varied works contrasted with a piece by Ligeti or Bartók (two of the go-to 20th-century composers the competitors usually select) makes for an audience experience that closely resembles an actual concert rather than the opening salvo in a battle to win the approval of the BISQC jury. That jury this year includes former Tokyo String Quartet first violinist Martin Beaver; Afiara Quartet cellist Adrian Fung, whose group took second prize at the 2010 BISQC; violist Gillian Ansell, a founding member of the New Zealand Quartet; David Harrington, the brains behind the creation of the Kronos Quartet; Nobuko Imai, former member of the Vermeer Quartet; Emerson Quartet first violinist Philip Setzer; and Guildhall School cello prof Ursula Smith.
Choosing repertoire is clearly strategic, which is why once again – as was the case three years ago – we heard mostly Bartok (three Third Quartets, two Seconds, and one each of the Fourth and Fifth) and Ligeti (two First Quartets. The outlier was Szmymanowski’s Second Quartet.
By the end of round 1, the groups had revealed more than a glimpse into this year’s spectrum of quality and stylistic versatility, which is what the competition, with its other contrasting rounds, tests. Round 2 features the core Romantics (Beethoven gets his own day in the final); round 3 asks for Schubert and each quartet’s own unrestricted program selections. There is also a Canadian day, when every quartet plays Matthew Whittall’s Banff Centre-commissioned String Quartet No. 2 (Bright Ferment).
There is a $3,000 prize for the best Haydn performance, and several other subsidiary awards. But the grand prize can make a career, as it has helped several previous winners do, including the Dover Quartet (2013) and the last BISQC laureates, the Rolston Quartet. Besides the $25,000 cash prize, the winner gets an extensive North American and European tour arranged by the Banff Centre, a recording session and, new this year, a two-year residency at Southern Methodist University valued at US$160,000.
Since 2016, Banff has been giving the seven quartets who don’t make the Sunday final a kind of appearance fee, this year doubled to $4,000. Second- and third-place finishers go home with $12,000 and $8,000, respectively, as well as continuing career development support from BISQC.
Most of the 600 or so full-week audience members keep their own scorecard. By the end, it’s not unusual to hear grumbling about the jury’s choices. In some years, as when the Dovers won every prize, the result is a no-brainer. At this early stage, the Haydn prize could go to any one of half the field, but two groups seem to me to be obvious contenders.
- One is the Marmen Quartet from the U.K. Their Ligeti No. 1 was brilliantly comic and sublimely spellbinding by turns. The fade to silence at the end this fragmented mid-20th-century work was astonishingly well controlled. This, among other things, marked them as among the cream of this crop.
- Thanks in large part to the Viano Quartet’s violinist Hao Zhou, the 22-year-old American winner of this year’s Concours musical international de Montréal, this group of players from Canada and the States stood out as an ensemble ready for prime time. Zhou impressed with his first-violin contribution to Haydn’s late Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1. His presence and musicality were magnetic, and even playing second violin in Bartok No. 4, he felt like the leader without showing any impulse to hog the limelight. His cohorts are no slouches themselves. The total effect of their two performances was totally professional.
All the BISQC rounds are being live streamed at theviolinchannel.com
You be the judge.