Far-Flung String Players Converge (Virtually) For A Festival Homecoming

Barry Shiffman, artistic director of the Banff International String Quartet Competition, with the Banff Festival Chamber Orchestra.

BANFF, Alberta — The year after the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition, artistic director Barry Shiffman and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where the event is held, established a new venture that would give musicians and audiences the chance to enjoy the reverberations of the triennial contest in the years between the weeklong chamber music pressure cooker.

The first iterations were an eclectic mix of string players, singers, other instrumentalists, including an erhu player, and various panel discussions and presentations, and they were, of course, held live in this Canadian Rockies town, a hundred miles west of Calgary. The Banff International String Quartet Festival in the summer of 2020 was virtual because of COVID-19 and included some of the same mix of musical performances and discussions.

This year’s festival, which ran Sept. 2-5 through Vimeo links, featured almost exclusively string ensembles, with the exception of the final day’s performance of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, with Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin and the Viano Quartet, co-winners of the 2019 Banff competition.

Barry Shiffman, in Canada, in virtual conversation with the Dali Quartet, in Philadelphia.

A couple of weeks before the festival, Shiffman said in an interview from his parked car on his way back to Toronto from the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in Massachusetts, where he’s also artistic director, that it was the audience’s response to last year’s virtual festival that emboldened him to do it again. He called the need to offer such a festival an almost “moral obligation to be hand in hand with the artists through this pandemic. Everybody received a paycheck for their effort.”

All five hour-long performances presented over the four days were prerecorded in spaces throughout North America and Europe, the final one from the Banff Centre itself. The Viano program was filmed in the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA. Hamelin lives nearby, and the Vianos were there for the Rockport Festival. The gig was convenient for everybody. The rest of that program included only the Vianos, playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet and American composer Caroline Shaw’s The Evergreen, a minimalist-flavored, episodic reflection on nature’s ineffable power and potential effect on a receptive visitor.

An American ensemble, the Callisto Quartet, runners-up at the 2019 Banff competition, played the first concert, joined by Canadian cellist Desmond Hoebig, cello professor at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, where their performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major was recorded. The original broadcast, viewed by a committed 140 listeners, was marred by occasional skips (my WiFi is normally solid), and I listened to it on an iPad, so appraising some aspects of the effort isn’t useful. But their performance was nicely rendered, and the videography focused on capturing the ensemble in a conventional chamber music concert setting: no gimmicks. (I listened again to the archived version, and it was unblemished).

Not all the filming approaches resisted taking some “artistic” liberties that drew attention away from the fact that these were musicians, sitting in chairs, moving decorously, not objects available for eccentric reshaping and animating by an ambitious directorial eye. The Budapest-based Kelemen Quartet gave an excellent performance of Bartók’s String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 from Haydn Hall at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, broadcast on Saturday evening. But the visual element of that recital was an odd mix of long shots of the group in the ornate room and busy, seldom head-on framing that seemed inspired by the Cubist aesthetic.

Members of the Banff Festival Chamber Orchestra with their leader.

The evening concert Sept. 3, filmed in Philadelphia, featured the Dáli Quartet, whose program drew on Latin-flavored repertoire, including Piazzola’s Tango Ballet, which has a kind of greatest hits feel; his Four for Tango; the Pastorale, Andantino movement of Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga’s String Quartet No. 3 in E-Flat major; and Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 1.

The culminating concert Sept. 6 was Shiffman’s personal statement about the Banff Centre’s place in the world of chamber music and his hope for the return of live concerts. He mustered 15 of Canada’s most esteemed string players — an assemblage he dubbed the Banff Festival Chamber Orchestra — to come to Banff, where they recorded their performance a few days before it was streamed. The players included the concertmasters of the Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and Victoria Symphonies and Shiffman himself on violin. He was a founding member of the St. Lawrence Quartet, which won the Banff competition in 1992. The orchestra played a varied program of contemporary Canadian repertoire and some European chestnuts, albeit with one practical twist at the end, given the collection of musicians at hand.

Orford String Quartet cellist Denis Brott

Of his determination to have live musicians play in Banff again, Shiffman said, “There’s something deeply symbolic and emotional about people from across the country returning to our home. All of the people in this orchestra are connected directly to the Centre. We grew up there.” Shiffman came for the first time for training in Banff when he was a pre-teen.

The final concert opened with Dinuk Wijeratne’s Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems, which won the 2016 Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy) for best composition. It’s a piece that hews to a comfortable style of melodic development, eschewing ventures into harsher new-music territory. The second Canadian work, Marjan Mozetich’s three-movement Postcards from the Sky, abides in a similar compositional sensibility. Most of it conjures the feeling of what floating on a cloud might be like. These messages from the sky evoke a totally serene, placid musical imagining, devoid of sudden turbulence or foul weather. Mozetich has composed a number of film scores, and this piece shows his knack for building a supporting mood.

The non-Canadian half began with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, which maintained the mood of sweetness and twilight. Most of the program highlighted these Canadian musicians’ mastery of tone control and ensemble cohesion. And even the last piece, the Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8, whose middle movements elicit some dramatic excitement, is bracketed by largo tempi, calling for the same sensitivity required for much of the other music on the program.

The non-musical elements of the program included a couple of documentaries, and Shiffman talked with cellist Norman Fischer, coordinator of chamber music at Tanglewood, and violinist Aaron Boyd, director of chamber music at Southern Methodist University, about his approach to developing young string quartet players in America. He also spoke with Denis Brott, former cellist with the Orford String Quartet and a mainstay contributor to the Banff Centre’s cultivation of classical music talent in Canada. Brott had a life-threatening case of COVID in March 2020. He has made a remarkable return to cello playing after months of onerous rehabilitation.

All of the Banff String Quartet Festival sessions are archived on the Banff Centre website.