A String Quartet Competition Spawns A Festival

The Rolston String Quartet was one of three that took part in the 2017 Banff Centre International String Quartet Festival.
(Photo by Rita Taylor)
By Bill Rankin

BANFF, Alberta – The Banff International String Quartet Competition has been ushering outstanding new chamber music talent to the market every three years since 1983, when the Colorado Quartet took home a much more modest prize package than current laureates receive.

The Jupiter Quartet

According to BISQC director Barry Shiffman, the idea of offering some sort of program in the in-between years has been kicked around for some time. The idea bore fruit this Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1-3, with a chamber music festival featuring the 1992, 2004, and 2016 winners, as well as several other musical guests.

The six-concert, inaugural Banff Centre International String Quartet Festival was held in the 226-seat Rolston Recital Hall, an acoustically superior venue, compared with the 900-seat Eric Harvie, where the competition is held. BISQC draws listeners from across the United States, Europe, and Canada. About 85 percent of the festival’s subscribers (every seat for the weekend was sold) were from nearby Calgary and other Alberta communities.

The first afternoon concert included two works – Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and Schumann’s String Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3 – performed by the 2016 laureate, the Rolston String Quartet. The featured violinists in the Bach, backed by an all-star ensemble of players from the three featured quartets and guest artists, were up-and-coming Canadian talent, winners of the junior and senior prizes at the 2016 OSM Manulife Competition in Montreal.

The young violinists – Alice Lee, 17, and Blake Pouliot, 22 – played their solo roles without Romantic embellishments. The stylish playing of the orchestra was a big hit with the audience, and I was especially impressed with the two cellists, Denis Brott and the Rolstons’ Jonathan Lo, for their warm but penetrating work in the continuo parts. Brott, former cellist with the Orford Quartet, has been a mentor of emerging talent at Banff for decades.

Later in the first program, the Rolstons gave an unimpeachable performance of Schumann’s staid A Major Quartet, a piece typical chamber music series fans will always appreciate.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet (Photo by Eric Cheng)

The highlight of the first day, though, was the Jupiter Quartet’s evening performance of Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes). Cellist Daniel McDonough’s introduction to the piece, one of the most helpful talks from the stage I have ever heard, guided my understanding of the jagged composition considerably. McDonough himself is the gravitational center of the Jupiter, which reveals the rhythmic intricacies of everything they play both with their instruments and their bodies; that physicality was especially effective in their reading of the Ligeti quartet, their heads signaling directional shifts and accents almost as much as their bows.

Besides the Ligeti, mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah, well known in Canada for her weekday-morning classical music show on CBC Radio Two, Australian pianist Piers Lane, and violist Shiffman performed Two Songs, Op. 91, by Brahms. Nesrallah, an artist with a warm contralto sound, sang the turbulent “Gestillte Sehnsucht” and the less than soothing “Geistliches Wiegenlied” forcefully. Nesrallah’s voice is powerful, but for the lullaby, she might have found a lower gear to admonish the roaring elements to be silent so the child could sleep.

In the first piece of the evening, Pouliot caught the jazzy, bluesy flavor of the Ravel Sonata with youthful panache, but his young piano collaborator, Alexander Malikov, especially in the opening movement, showed he has things to learn about playing for and with a colleague.

The first evening concert ended with a bravura reading of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E Flat, Op. 20, played by the St. Lawrence and Rolston Quartets. The two quartets performed the piece at Spoleto this year. The inimitably animated first violinist of the SLSQ, Geoff Nuttall, led the ensemble with a true performer’s sense of occasion.


The evening of day two was eclectic. The Rolston Quartet prepared for the Banff competition with little 20th-century music in their repertoire. Perhaps for this reason, they have taken on Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 2 (Waves), written in 1976.

Pianist Piers Lane and mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah (Rita Taylor)

The piece begins as a faint buzz, oscillating minor seconds soon interrupted by an abrupt, sustained cello note. Over the work’s 18 minutes, the ensemble generated intense bursts, evocative glissandi, and playful and explosive pizzicato effects, among other sonic notions. One violinist created a good imitation of a theremin. Schafer is renowned for his experimental and theatrical bent, and in his second string quartet, the players, like those in Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, left the stage one by one, until just the cellist was left sitting in a slowly dimming spotlight. The Schafer quartet is challenging. It remains to be seen how well it will travel with these excellent new ambassadors of Canadian art music.

The Schafer was followed by Fauré’s La bonne chanson, Op. 61, for baritone, string quartet, and piano. From his first note, Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan revealed his capacity to take over a room, and there’s something about his face that evinces both charm and innocence. (Another critic at the concert suggested the baritone would make a convincing Billy Budd.) The SLSQ and Lane played the supportive background colors to enhance Duncan’s well-shaped performance of these songs, which explore the sentiments of medieval chivalry and poetic longing in an antique lyric idiom.

The Jupiter Quartet closed the evening with a rock-solid, if uninspired, performance of Beethoven’s Op. 127. Unlike his counterparts in many string quartets, the first violinist of the Jupiter, Nelson Lee, has a reserved approach to his duties. Second violinist Meg Freivogel is more overtly engaged. Thus, the visual effect is quite different from what one gets watching Nuttall and his group perform. The finale of the Beethoven drew the audience to its feet with roaring appreciation.


In the afternoon, Nuttall and his cohorts presented an argument for why Haydn’s Op. 20 string quartets set the standard for innovation in that form well into the 19th century. Nuttall is a gifted teacher, witty and erudite, and “his students” loved the experience of sharing in his affection and regard for the father of the string quartet.


On the final day of concerts, Nesrallah sang Respighi’s gothic love story Il Tramonto, set to verses by Shelley. Accompanied by Lane and the Jupiter Quartet, the singer-as-narrator offered a wider palette of dynamics in a higher tessitura than was heard in the Brahms. Nesrallah clearly loves to be on stage, and she sang the story of love, death, and the ennui of mourning with appropriately high-Romantic flair.

Shiffman and Brott then joined Jupiter for a performance of Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G. The playful pizzicato exchanges among the players in the second movement were especially fun to watch.


The final evening’s concert punctuated this first festival memorably. Duncan and the Jupiter Quartet performed Barber’s Dover Beach, a setting of Matthew Arnold’s nostalgic lament, and the young baritone showed another side to his enormous talent. The poem evokes quiet desperation and a plea for personal intimacy as the last refuge in a miserable world. Duncan evinced Arnold’s sentiment poignantly.

The Rolstons returned to end the festival with a brilliant performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor. Lane joined them and gave yeoman service in a piece I suspect he hasn’t played much. First violinist Luri Lee distinguished herself glowingly in the Quintet’s sublime Fugue: Adagio movement.

BISQC director and violist Barry Shiffman (Don Lee)

The festival concluded with Reich’s Different Trains for string quartet and tape. Spanish filmmaker Beatriz Caravaggio was commissioned to create a video to illustrate the three-movement reflection on the benign and insidious significance of trains in young Reich’s America and wartime Europe. Above the Rolstons on the stage, a triptych of screens projected multiple images from wartime archive footage of trains crisscrossing America and doomed Jews boarding cattle cars. Caravaggio’s film puts an evocative gloss on the message of Reich’s hypnotically repetitive composition; what most impresses is the restraint with which she approached the project. Her editing of trains moving is rhythmically true to the music’s arc, and in the middle section, where the Holocaust is evoked, she resists any urge to shock. We know the story. She focuses on the deportation as a bureaucratic exercise, but when the third movement goes back to the war’s end and the story of immigration and survival, she shows us smiling faces of living people, underscoring Reich’s memory of humanity’s beauty and resilience. (Reich is said to have endorsed the filmmaker’s treatment of his piece.)

The festival will return next Labor Day weekend. Some would say that over the past five years or so, Banff Centre’s classical music mission has been under siege. Banff has been a training center for countless developing classical musicians for many decades, many of whom have gone on to international careers. The summer music program that attracted individual players has been cut. The focus of the programming is broader and more geared toward “diversity” than it has been traditionally.

Shiffman is gratified that Banff Centre president Janice Price, after witnessing her first BISQC in 2016, virtually ordered him to create this new chamber music festival. He hopes the audience that has flocked to Banff every three years for the string quartet competition will be reassured that classical music is not dying at Banff Centre.

“Some audiences felt disenfranchised [by the changes], so this [festival] is just a great chance to remind them that we’re not going away,” he said.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.