After hearing seven of the 10 quartets playing in today’s Romantic Round at the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition, and knowing that there are three more to go before the judges rule tonight, I have a confession to make: I don’t care who wins anymore.
Actually, it’s not a confession but the result of an epiphany.
The seeds of the afternoon’s epiphany were sowed with the morning’s first performance, which started at an early 10 a.m., forcing us from the clearest of blue late-summer skies into the dark theatre.
The Schumann Quartett, already a favourite, sat down to play the finest performance of Felix Mendelssohn’ Op. 80 quartet I have ever heard. It was electric. Stunning.
But then ensemble after ensemble stepped out on that stage and delivered strong performances — moving, impassioned, exquisite — of Claude Debussy, more Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Maurice Ravel.
Each of the seven quartets so far today brought something of their own to the music — all the while more than fulfilling the basic requirements that all the notes be there in the right order. The little brown paper bag of adjectives in my mind was beginning to empty out.
I thought back to a newspaper article I saw early this week, where the writer admired the nearly professional calibre of the performances in the Banff competition.
I’m afraid I have to contradict that person: Every single one of these quartets is professional-grade. I challenge anyone to attend a regular recital by one of these ensembles and not come away feeling as fulfilled as if it had been the Emerson or the St Lawrence or Takács String Quartets on the bill.
These are real, serious, thoughtful, committed musicians — all of them. And what we’re hearing this week is as good or better than the average chamber-society subscription series concert from anywhere in North America.
It’s just that they’re young musicians who are doing everything they can to stand on their own eight feet professionally, and that includes entering competitions.
As I wrote here earlier in the week, a competition is a sort of microscope that distorts as it magnifies everything under its lens. In the real world, many of the musical objects we feel we are perceiving would be as insignificant as specks of dust on a bookshelf.
I thought about each of today’s quartets, and how I might review them at the Jane Mallett Theatre or Walter Hall in Toronto, versus the sort of nitpicky things I was picking up in Banff. I would be listening for the conviction of their interpretations and the cohesion of their musicmaking. I would not be listening for accuracy, unless there was something really strange going on.
Music brought to life as a story to beguile a group of listeners is not about hewing closely to a printed score; it is about making that story mean something in the here and now.
Some of the quartets in the Banff competition make music with gentle poise. Others heighten everything by pushing dynamics and rhythms. I walked back to my room under the day’s blazing sun thinking it’s not the poise or the push that matter, but the fact that it is effective communication, each destined to connect with a different set of ears.
Yes, I still have my list of favourite quartets, which I will compare tonight with the judges’ list of three finalists. But I can now go to dinner and enjoy a walk, serene, happy and gratified that no matter who the judges choose, all 10 of these ensembles will be able to go back into the real world and find a way of connecting with its audience with its musicmaking because they each have found a voice.
That is all we can hope for, whether we are making the music or listening to it.
The live stream of competition recitals from the Banff International String Quartet Competition can be found here.