I'm at the 12th triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition, at the Banff Centre for the Arts, a collection of random buildings scattered in the woods below the imposing mountains of western Alberta. I saw a family of elk grazing outside the buildings on the way in yesterday. For the audience, about 250 of us, it's a lot like a Mythcon, except that the sessions are all plenary and consist mostly of music. We're staying in a building best described as 1960s college dorm, we're taking group-seating buffet meals in the cafeteria next door (the food is fabulous, as I'd guessed when I read an interview with one competing group that had been here before; when asked why they wanted to return, they said "For the food"). And while we're kept hermetically sealed off from the contestants and the jury, who are working and have no time or energy to socialize, thrust on our own resources we're having a great time, conversing intelligently over meals or during intermission. Most of the attendees are older, but both physically and mentally spry. They're also mostly Canadians, many from Toronto. When I tell them I'm from San Francisco (well, roughly), they exclaim what a long way off that is. I don't have the heart to tell them it's actually closer than Toronto.
The contestants are ten young-professional string quartets, all (it's hoped) ready for the big time, which doing well at BISQC should launch, as it often has in the past. There's four rounds for all ten, plus a fifth for the three finalists, over the course of a week. Today was part one of the first and longest round. Each quartet plays two works, one by Haydn (whose large output is the foundation of the string quartet repertoire) and one 20th-century. Within each, each quartet has free choice, but though there's a large set repertoire for the latter, everybody this year has chosen one of the same five Bartok or Janacek quartets. So today, split into two concerts (afternoon and evening), we had four groups doing one Haydn and one Bartok apiece. Yikes. But it was interesting, and distinctive, and each group's style was reflected in both works.
My top honors of the day go to the Argus Quartet, the only group to dress informally. Their Haydn (Op. 76/5) was gentle, soft, even cozy, a bit cautious in approach but lively, especially in the finale, and with a charming lilt to the melodic line. Their light touch served them well in the two scherzi of the Bartok Fourth. Airy, fleeting, feathery, with weird sonorities, and the softest possible pianissimo. Big slashing tuttis in the outer movements also expressed weird Bartokian sounds well and arrestingly, but an even balance among the players made the more contrapuntal passages sound a bit chaotic.
The Tesla Quartet, who are all very tall, did Haydn's dramatic minor-mode Op. 33/1 in a cool, crisp, "first violin and accompaniment" style with careful attention to the melodic line. This same attention really brought out the faded, decrepit late Romantic beauty of the Bartok Sixth. It was stunningly and unexpectedly gorgeous, and I noticed they paid careful attention to relative dynamics, too. (What, you think I'm going to listen to all this Bartok without scores in hand?) Unlike the Argus, they dialed the special Bartokian effects way down, except in the Burletta movement, which dove into glissandi and grinding harmonic dissonance with satirical relish.
The Verona Quartet's Haydn (Op. 50/1) was another dark-toned work, at least in this performance, until it broke out into high spirits in the Vivace finale. Little swells and accents made the work throb with half-hidden emotion. This was the day's best Haydn, but I had trouble digesting their Bartok Fifth, which was way over on the Expressionist end of the spectrum. This was a hard and stony modernism, but it was utterly clear and there was never any doubt as to what they were saying or what it meant, so I have to count this as a good performance of a highly indigestible work.
Also very good, but fourth of today's groups in my estimation, was the Aeolus Quartet. Their Haydn (Op. 64/6) was firmer, more grounded, and overall more old-fashioned in style than the others. The sound was well-blended from divergent elements. The effect was genial, but not witty. They also did the Bartok Sixth, but it wasn't anywhere near as affecting as the Tesla's. It was serious and heavy, especially in the slow finale, with some interesting silvery sounds, but quite grim throughout.
Also today, a lecture from the resident mathematician (yes, they have one) on how he superintends the scoring system for the judges, and a master class for two quartets of teenage Canadians, playing Mendelssohn and Beethoven, conducted by cellist Joel Krosnick, recently retired from the Juilliard Quartet.
Tomorrow, six more Haydn and Bartok (or Janacek) pairs. Into the breach!