Presto! (Or Andante): Between Competitions, A Festival Works Magic

Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska performed a concert with accordionist Michael Bridge. (Photos by Rita Taylor, Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity)

BANFF — The Banff International String Quartet Competition began in 1983, and every third year since then, young string quartets have descended on this Canadian Rocky Mountain town to compete for prizes and a major career-launching boost at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Over the years, the format and to some extent the competition requirements have evolved, and the prize package is now worth an estimated $150,000 US in cash and career development support, including extensive tours in North America and Europe.

In 2017, the year after the Canadian Rolston Quartet won the competition, the Centre introduced what it calls the Banff International String Quartet Festival between competition years, with concerts featuring consummate ensembles, including former Banff finalists and winners. But each year, artists with other backgrounds also join the string players for sometimes-surprising musical adventures.

The festival director is Barry Shiffman, founding member of the 1992 winners, the St. Lawrence String Quartet. He has also led the competition since 2006 and will continue to do so until at least 2028.

This year’s festival, held Sept. 1-3, drew sellout audiences to the 226-seat Rolston Hall for eight concerts and supplementary programming, such as music-related films. The string quartets this year were the Viano Quartet, co-winners of the 2019 competition; the Leonkoro Quartet, winners of Wigmore Hall’s string quartet contest; the Dior Quartet, 2022 Banff competitors; and the Canadian all-star New Orford String Quartet, whose members include principals and concertmasters of the Toronto and Montreal Symphony Orchestras.

A performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet featured, from left, violinists Hao Zhou and Jonathan Crow, violist Aiden Kane, cellists Lukas Schwarz and Brian Manker, violist Sharon Wei, and violinists Barry Shiffman and Andrew Wan.

But the imaginative, some might even say at times iconoclastic, programming also included the remarkable mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska, accordionist Michael Bridge, double bassist Joel Quarrington, and 17-year-old violin sensation Anna Štube. Several years ago, the festival featured an erhu player.

Štube opened the first of three concerts on Sept. 2 with a mesmerizing display of poise and virtuosity in Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, accompanied sensitively by Bridge. The spare duo arrangement accentuated the soloist’s personal feel for the piece even more than a typical larger ensemble collaboration might. Štube showed that even as she’s on the cusp of pursuing further training with Shiffman in Toronto, she already belonged with the more experienced players at the festival.

At the morning concert Sept. 3, she returned to play Franck’s Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano with pianist Gilles Vonsattel. The performance was part of a presentation by American musician and author Thomas Wolf, whose book The Nightingale’s Sonata traces the extraordinary history of his musical family, centering on his grandmother, Lea Luboshutz, a successful touring violinist who left the Soviet Union for the United States in 1931.

Wolf did a presentation based on his book, glossing the session with vintage photographs of Luboshutz, his grandfather, a successful lawyer and excellent pianist in pre-revolutionary Russia and Wolf’s own immediate family. The Franck sonata helped build Luboshutz’s musical career and became a piece that successive generations of the clan learned and played. A 17-year-old female violinist was the perfect person to conjure an image reminiscent of the first public performance Wolf’s grandmother might have given more than a hundred years ago. And as in her excellent rendition of the Vaughn Williams, Štube’s nuanced, exquisitely controlled playing was on display.

Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel took part in the festival.

Another revelation at the festival that was not string quartet-related was Macedonian-Canadian mezzo-soprano Nikolovska. She trained as a violinist with none other than Barry Shiffman at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto and then left to study singing at London’s Guild Hall, leaving the stringed instrument behind. Shiffman, in introducing her, feigned offense that she abandoned his instrument for a vocal career, adding that while she was in Toronto, he had no idea she could sing. Well, sing she can, and her three contributions to the festival showed just how powerfully and persuasively she does it.

In her first appearance the afternoon of Sept. 2, she sang Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok with Vonsattel and two members of the Leonkoro Quartet, violinist Amelie Wallner and cellist Lukas Schwarz. Her power and dramatic engagement as anguished storyteller in a set of songs largely devoted to images of terror and mayhem were shockingly impressive.

That night, performing with Vonsattel, Nikolovska changed demeanor with a lively, sometimes mischievous, series of Schubert songs, once again showing what a keen musical intelligence and true performer’s personality can bring to vocal art. In her final appearance, joined by Bridge in the closing concert Sept. 3, she donned another persona altogether to capture a sultry, and at times playful, Spanish mood with de Falla’s Siete canciones populares Español, Ravel’s Vocalise-étude en forme de Habenera, and two songs from Obradors’ Canciones Clásica Españolas.

Incidental contributions came from the Dior Quartet, who played a portion of just the first concert on Sept. 1. They performed the compulsory Canadian piece by Dinuk Wijeratne, commissioned for last year’s BISQC. The nine-minute Disappearance of Lisa Gherardini (the model for the Mona Lisa) is meant to convey the urgency and sneakiness of an art heist, complete with players mugging for the audience and scooting about the stage at various points. The audience appreciated the humor and the quality of the playing. (I met one woman from Toronto who was at the festival just to hear Dior.). The Toronto-based quartet also performed Greek-Canadian Christos Hatzis’ String Quartet No. 1: The Awakening, which incorporates atmospherics such as Inuit throat singing, the cadence of a moving train, and bird calls. Hatzis has a gnarly style of quartet writing that can be wearing to listen to.

On the afternoon concert Sept. 2, another somewhat peripheral contributor, Canadian double bassist Joel Quarrington, played a beautiful tribute to the current Ukrainian ordeal, Prayer for Ukraine, composed by Valentin Silvestrov, who is now safely ensconced in Germany. The next evening, Quarrington also offered a lovely arrangement of Vivaldi’s Sonata No. 6 in B-flat major, originally for cello, the only Baroque piece on the weekend program. He was accompanied by accordionist Bridge.

Following the Vivaldi, all hell broke loose with the final movement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, No. 1. Substituting accordion for piano injected a roughness that magnified the abrasive sound this intensely played instrument can produce, and by the end, the intrinsically uproarious quality of the movement passed into kitchen-party territory. When Schwarz, Shiffman, Tate Zawadiuk (the Viano cellist), and Bridge blasted the last bars, the audience roared with approval and delivered a whole-hearted standing ovation as spontaneously as such things come.

Canadian double bassist Joel Quarrington paid tribute to Ukraine.

Other, more refined repertoire drew strong ovations as well, but this rendition of folksy Brahms drew the strongest, next to a flashy solo effort by Viano’s charismatic first violinist, Hao Zhou, performing the 1940s-era Grappelli/Venuti-style Hot Canary by Paul Nero at the morning concert Sept. 2. Zhou made that canary sizzle with an assortment of exhibitionist techniques that awed and delighted. He was also especially animated as primary first violin in the festival’s climactic presentation of Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat. That ensemble was composed of an assortment of players anchored by the New Orford group. (The pleasure several of the players took in wrapping the festival was evident on their faces.)

Geoff Nuttall was a co-founder of the Banff-winning St. Lawrence Quartet, along with Shiffman. Nuttall died last fall at age 56. Shiffman programmed a tribute to his friend and colleague with a performance of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ.

Nuttall was an ardent advocate of Haydn’s music, and since the beginning of the Banff competition, a Haydn round has been compulsory. The three core quartets and Quarrington played the piece, whose sections were punctuated by the reading of various lyrics from Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Rilke, and others by actor Alon Nashman.

This interpolation was distracting, verging on maudlin, but it was in keeping with some of the experiments Shiffman is known for. The idea may have come from the Vermeer Quartet’s 1994 two-CD recording that contained one performance interspersed with readings from clergy and theologians, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and evangelist Billy Graham.

One noteworthy performance of a string quartet came from the young group from Britain, the Leonkoro Quartet. Their reading of the 30-minute Shostakovich Quartet No. 3 in F major captured the jauntiness of the opening movement buoyantly, and as a more sinister, menacing mood develops, they had a handle on that, as well. The Leonkoro players have a demure stage presence, buttheir music-making speaks for itself, and they are emerging impressively. Worth mentioning on the conventional chamber-music front was a much-appreciated performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet with Andrew Wan, the Montreal Symphony’s concertmaster on first violin, and the New Orford String Quartet’s indefatigable performance of Schubert’s monumental String Quartet No. 15 in G major.

The 2022 winners, the New York-based Isidore Quartet, will be at the 2024 iteration of the festival. They were in Europe this year taking advantage of the career-development opportunities that winning Banff competition brings.