One of the competing quartets, the Calidore Quartet, which features members from the U.S.A. and Calgary.

It’s probably short notice for you to drop everything and get out to Banff for the first concert of the Banff International String Quartet Competition today. However, you can still get your fix sitting at your desk as the concerts will be streamed at and As much as it is a once in a three year contest between high end, under-35 string quartets, the BISQC is a fan-friendly chamber music celebration. Competition director (and former competition winner in 1992 as a member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet) Barry Shiffman sat down with Swerve’s Going Out Editor Jon Roe to talk about the event.

Competition director Barry Shiffman

You were saying that the BISQC gets fairly large audiences, compared to other string quartet competitions. Classical music already holds a small part of the cultural pie. Chamber music holds a small part of the niche of classical music. Quartet music, although considered by experts and composers to be some of the most important music written, is followed by a small group of people. Which has always been frustrating to me as a string quartet player, because the music is so great. There’s a stigma. When you think of string quartets, you think of four old guys wearing tails. You think it’s stuffy and it’s not that anymore. The audiences at international competitions in chamber music are traditionally very small with the exception of the final round—50 to 80 people. At the Banff Centre, we fill Eric Harvie pretty much every day of the week for the competition. Because there’s such a big audience, we don’t eliminate anybody. We think, you know what, these are great quartets. We’ve got an audience, just play. And they play all week long. Saturday night before the finals, the jury makes the selection from 10 groups to three. We have this audience, we want the quartets to be heard and we want the audience to have these concerts. It becomes a festival.
That’s a great thing because the business of artists competing against each other is a difficult one for us to justify. We have international competitions and they’re a necessary—I suppose I would say—evil because they help launch careers. We do our very best in Banff to have the week of the international string quartet competition to be much more of a festival event rather than to feel like the artists are competing against artists.

How do you go about selecting which pieces the string quartets perform during the competition? There’s music of the string quartet canon that the jury will want to hear. They’ll want to hear them play a Haydn quartet for instance; they’ll want to hear them play a Beethoven quartet. There’s an incredible amount written in the 20th and 21st century that is just earth-shattering. There are many groups that specialize just in the music of the 20th century—Kronos Quartet comes to mind. We require (the competing quartets) to play a work from the early 20th century. We commissioned a Canadian composer to write a work that they all have to play. We create a list of repertoire from which they have to choose. Every three years we change that list so those that come back to listen to the competition again have a different experience. We have about an 80 per cent return rate on the audience that every three years come and give us a week of their lives.
We take it seriously. During the Haydn day, when all the quartets play Haydn, we have our chef create an Austrian feast. We go all out. We have people dressed up as Haydn walking around the dining hall.
The Banff Centre is investing heavily right now in its dissemination platform. We just acquired the rights to takeover one of the local radio stations this year. The CRTC has given us the rights to Banff Park radio. We are capturing every note in audio and in video and we are streaming the entire competition live on our website And, as well, we’re providing that feed to the CBC and they’ll be streaming the entire competition live on In addition to the few hundred people that appreciate and hear it here, it’s about capture and disseminate. And that’s really the future of the centre.

What age would most of the quartets gotten into playing string quartet music? The quartets that are competing, all of them had serious music upbringing. All of them started when they were young, like seven or eight years old. They would’ve discovered chamber music and playing in string quartets usually in their early-to-mid teens and then continued it in college. Usually chamber music is a requirement of any formal classical music training. There’s no magic way that they find each other and that’s what makes it so remarkable.
Most quartets happen because a few people will start having a jam session and realize how much they love this music and find two other people and then they’ll just commit to each other in a completely irrational way. Before you make any money as a string quartet, before there’s any chance of it, you have to invest an amazing amount of time and energy and struggle. That’s what is so beautiful.… There’s a sense of commitment to the art form and to each other that is really unlike anything else in the music world. I think it’s because the art form of string quartet playing is so rewarding. The music written is just so rewarding and you only really get to understand the riches that music provides if you have dedicated the time. You dedicate the time and you find four people that are really exceptional players and then you start to realize what this music is about.
I used to have a colleague in the St. Lawrence Quartet, when I was in that group, who likened the experience to playing in a great string quartet to driving a Ferrari on the racetrack. When you hit the gas pedal and you feel what it’s like to hug a corner at a 100 miles an hour—it’s that sort of feeling. You don’t get that driving a Toyota around.

What is it about the music that it’s best played by a group that’s been together for a long time? It’s so hard to explain. Ultimately it’s about conversation. String quartet playing is about the art of conversation, the dialogue that happens in the music. An idea is presented in the music and (it’s about) how that idea unfolds musically. It is expressed and explored in the most intimate way by these musicians. I think the art of discourse is the appeal of it. You just have to read the newspaper to see that the world needs a little bit more expertise in discourse. It’s really beautiful.

There’s a beautiful video (see above). It’s just so moving. I was moved to tears when this group came. They’re not a competing quartet, but they’re coming. They were 10 and 11 years old when they came and took in the competition and got coached. It’s so beautiful to see young people having a conversation at that level; a conversation through music, but still a conversation.

One of the lectures is called “Do you need a Stradivarius to win?” which speaks to the question of whether you need a good instrument to be a good musician. We’ve invited to that lecture Samuel Zygmuntowicz. He’s considered to be the greatest contemporary violin maker. There are people who will be competing in this competition who will show up with a Stradivarius. They’ll have an instrument that’s worth two to four million dollars. They’ll be other musicians that show up with an instrument that was made five years ago and even though it’s really expensive at $30,000, it’s nothing like a Strad. When I was in the competition, I was playing on one of Sam’s violins when we won. I know that the jury will hear all sorts of different quality of instruments. I invited Sam to come to talk about what it is to make a violin, how do you make a violin sound like a Stradivarius.
It’s a weird thing where the best violins ever made were made 300 years ago. We’re still trying to figure out how they did it. There’s nothing really else that I can say about. We make better pianos than we made then. Our cars are faster, you know?
… I’m having Sam make me a violin and there’s a four year wait because he’s so in demand. There are only 600 Strads in the world that exist. Maybe half of them sound really great. In China right now, there are close to 10 million violin students. We don’t have enough to go around. It’s a fascinating time with the explosion of classical music in Asia and how that will affect everything.

Did you ever play on a Stradivarius? Oh yeah, many times.

When you played on it, what made it different from other instruments? It’s not like you put the instrument under your chin and it’s really easy to play. They’re actually kind of unwieldly. To go back to the car analogy, if you haven’t double clutched on a sports car, it’s not easy. Once you get used to playing them, what ultimately is remarkable in the Strad is the projection of the sound. The sound has a way of penetrating and filling a large space; that’s really important to a concert performer. The other thing that a Strad or any great instrument has is a huge palette of colour potential. You really want the instrument to do what you want it to do and to inspire you to look for new sounds. A great instrument, particularly a great Strad, will have this huge range of overtones and colours. I like the analogy of rather than colouring with an eight-pack of Crayola, you’ve hit the jackpot, you’ve got the 64-pack with all the different colours of purple and different oranges. It opens up new worlds of possibility that you didn’t know existed.

How does a young quartet sound compared to a quartet that’s played together for 20 or 30 years?People make the analogy to a wine that there is a certain amount of age that’s required. The level of playing goes up year after year. These (young) quartets are playing at a level that’s just remarkable. Sure, there’s something very special in hearing a quartet that’s been together for 25 years. There’s a sense of nuance and ease of making music that I think only happens after you’ve been together that long. On the other hand, there’s a sense of spontaneity and enthusiasm and youthfulness that a young quartet has an advantage over an older ensemble.
I don’t like to say one is better than the other.

The Banff International String Quartet Competition runs until Sunday, Sept. 1 at the Banff Centre. See the schedule at

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