Canadians Take the Top Two Spots at Banff
For some, the judges' decisions leave unanswered questions
Late summer in Canada’s Banff National Park is always a special experience, but when these spectacular surroundings are combined with the delicious sounds of nine gifted young string quartets—all playing their hearts out to win a generous, career-launching prize—the experience is unforgettable. This year, when the dust and excitement of the weeklong competition settled, Canada’s Cecilia String Quartet—the quartet-in-residence at the Schulich School of Music at Montreal’s McGill University—emerged the winner, just edging out fellow Canadians the Afiara String Quartet for the top prize.
The event, held August 30 through September 5, marked a moment of excitement and professional vindication for young women who strive for excellence in string-quartet playing: not only was the winning quartet comprised entirely of women, so was the third place Quatuor Zaïde of France. In fact, each of the quartets included female players, and altogether the women clearly outnumbered the men.
Now in its 30th year, the Banff International String Quartet Competition is a well-established event and, Banff Center director Barry Shiffman says, it is the largest string-quartet competition in the world. Many of the winners and laureates of the competition have gone on to illustrious careers—the Miró Quartet, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and the Hagen Quartet, to name a few. A win at this competition is a significant feather in the cap of any aspiring quartet, and in most instances a springboard to an international career.
Only nine of the 30 quartets who had applied were invited to compete. During the competition, each quartet had to perform a Haydn quartet and an early modern quartet in the first round, which was followed immediately by a Romantic round. There was also a complex modern piece composed especially for the competition, as well as a Beethoven/Schubert round. Afterward, the three finalists had to present a short program of their own choosing.
No wonder the competition was so intense—and, for some, controversial.
A HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE?
For the audience, at least half of the quartets, including many of European origin—such as the Amaryllis Quartet of Germany/Switzerland, the Asasello Quartet of Germany, the Atrium String Quartet from Russia, and the Afiaras—formed the front group, a “pack” from which the winner should naturally emerge. The Cecilias, while clean in execution and attractive onstage, were generally thought to be in the middle of this pack and unlikely as a choice for the top spot. Thus the question, circulating like a swarm of bees around the competition, was, what exactly were the judges looking for?
When asked point-blank by the audience prior to the final round and after the winner was announced, many of the judges hedged. One of the judges, who asked not be identified, commented that among the qualities a winner should have is the ability to be launched into a career through success in the competition—a quartet that “had potential for growth.”
This is not necessarily the same criterion as “who played the best.”
Despite the international makeup of the jury, there was a sense for some that North American-style playing was favored by the judges. Said one irritated European quartet member: “European quartets can’t win at Banff.”
While the record shows that this is not always the case, it can’t be denied that there has been a strong historic preference for North American quartets: more than two-thirds of the winning quartets have been North American. Many of the Canadian members of the audience, while happy for the success of the two homegrown quartets, were visibly uneasy about how it looks when an international competition sends the top two prizes home with Canadian quartets. It should be noted, however, that only one of the judges was Canadian.
There was also the unsettling point that the day after the win, cellist Rebecca Wenham of the Cecilias resigned, leaving people to wonder just what will be the actual sound and performance level of the quartet as it tours as the representative of the competition and gets the benefits that come with the first prize, including a recording opportunity. “It was a wonderful week of music—as long as one didn’t have to think about the outcome,” one audience member noted. While this was, perhaps, close to the prevailing sentiment, distinguished pianist William Aide, the chairman of the last Honens International Piano Competition and a veteran of many competitions, thought that the Cecilias fully deserved their win, finding their Dvo?ák quartet performance “marvellously nuanced and with a superb sense of the variety in the string textures.”
I would have preferred that the members of the quartets were closer in age, and not to have players who are in their early 20s compete with those who are in their 30s. Dropping the age cutoff to 30 would create a more obviously level playing field. There are also clear differences in the style of playing, presentation, and in the interpretive approach to music between European-trained quartets and those from North America.
On this point there is no easy solution.
Still, despite the controversy, the competition was a great success—and intriguing to watch. Quartets whose Haydn was beautiful and idiomatic slumped in the later rounds, while quartets that seemed to occupy a second tier were galvanized to give the favorites a run for their money. Compared to the half-dozen previous competitions I have heard
in Banff, this one was more consistent in the general level of the playing, making the selection of the winner especially difficult.
The audience was able to enter the complete world of string chamber music: besides the competing quartets, there were two student quartets of players ranging in age from 11 to 16 who were coached in public sessions by the special guests. The probable competitors of tomorrow, these young players gave ample testimony to the musical lure of string ensemble music.
Despite the tensions of the moment and the inevitable disagreements, it is almost certain that the next competition will, like this one, draw a large and appreciative audience. There is something magical in the sound of four expert string players playing together, and for this combination of players the finest composers wrote some of their best music.