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VC INTERVIEW | Banff International String Quartet Competition Director, Barry Shiffman

Streamed here on The Violin Channel, the competition will be held from August 29–September 4, 2022 in Banff, Alberta, Canada


Representing 16 different countries, the competitors of the 14th Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) will convene in Banff, Canada to compete in five rounds of competition.

Open to string quartets with all members under the age of 35, the competition announced its participants, here.

Established in 1983 as part of Banff Centre’s 50th anniversary, BISQC is held once every three years. Directed by Barry Shiffman, this year's edition will be the first presentation in Banff Centre's newly revitalized Jenny Belzberg Theatre.

We spoke with Barry Shiffman to learn more.


Tell us about the Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC). When was it founded and what was the initial vision?

Originally conceived as a one-time event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Banff Centre in 1983, the success it had in both attracting wonderful young quartets and audience made it clear this was something that should continue. At the time, the radio broadcasts on the CBC broke records for classical music programming. I remember as a young person listening to the radio and hearing performances by the Colorado Quartet and the Hagen Quartet. I think it planted a seed in me, and many other young string players, that was the beginning of a deep love of chamber music.


Can you tell us about your illustrious alumni network? 

The family of artists connected to BISQC runs very deep. From the winners, our network includes such ensembles as the Dover, Miro, Viano, Marmen, St. Lawrence. Other prize winners include the Hagen, Calidore, Ying, Mandelring, Kuss gropus, and countless others. The international quartet community is tightly connected to Banff. 

An important part of our success in building a network is the incredible history Banff Centre has in providing training in chamber music outside of the competition. For decades, Banff has been a place young artists have gone to study and create — and chamber music has been a core part of that activity. In fact, the Parker, JACK and Eybler Quartets spent a few weeks in Banff this month coaching and mentoring several young groups, so the tradition continues.


What is unique about the Banff International String Quartet Competition?

Where to begin...

Firstly, the experience of a true festival atmosphere. The quartets are supported by a sold-out audience that stays on campus and lives the experience together. After a performance, a quartet can come into the dining room and receive spontaneous applause from a table of newly discovered fans. It is so supportive. 

All quartets perform multiple times and only the night prior to the finals do we eliminate any group. Career development grants of $5000 go to the groups that do not advance to the finals. Coupled with coverage of flights, meals and lodging, we make a commitment to the artist on a level without equal in the chamber music world. 

We are deeply committed that the experience of participating at BISQC should always be positive and empowering and we work passionately to make that happen.


What are the judges looking for in a promising young ensemble?

I think the judges are looking to be deeply moved by the performance. It needs to jump off the stage and stop you in your tracks. We have all seen such performances. I remember seeing the jury after a performance of the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg performed by the Cecilia Quartet. Several jurors had tears streaming down their cheeks. I had to radio my production team to bring tissues to the jury table and knew at that moment that something magical had happened.

Of course, they want to see technical expertise but ultimately, they are looking for artists ready to embark on a serious performing career. Artists with an individual and compelling voice shine through.


What can winners of this year’s competition expect to receive?

The prize package is simply stunning. 

In addition to cash awards, the winner receives concert tours in Europe and North America, and recording and creative residency projects at Banff Centre. 

A truly remarkable part of the first prize is the opportunity to be in the Southern Methodist University Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence Prize at the Meadows School in Dallas. This 2-year paid visiting residency provides concerts, coaching and experience in mentoring younger students. 

Every quartet has a high-quality music video created while at the competition by the celebrated Riddle Films that helps in their future promotional needs. 

Details on all prizes and opportunities can be found at https://www.banffcentre.ca/bisqc/2022-competitor-info


What do you feel is the role of competition in today’s chamber music landscape?

Competitions have several objectives. Primarily they are about creating interest in the art form. Attracting an audience and community is a key goal.  

Further, providing a launching pad for deserving young artists has always been the focus at BISQC and that continues today. The challenges these young musicians face are significant and we are there to support them and work together to help their dreams come true.


What is one of your favorite memories from the competition?

Well, I have a unique set of memories as I competed in the 1992 competition with the St. Lawrence Quartet. I have to be honest and say that my favourite memory is the sound of the audience roaring as they announced we had won the competition. It was only through the crazed enthusiasm of our new fans that we realized the significance of what had just happened. A memory I treasure.


Can you tell us about the unique, interactive experience between the candidates, jury, and audience members? How do you create a sense of community?

Community, community, community!! It is all about community. We eat together, we hike together, and we attend lectures and concerts together. We have informal chamber music jam sessions in the bar at night for anyone wanting to play.  By the end of the week, everyone has gone through this transformative experience together and there are many hugs, tears, and laughs. After the last few years, it is what we all need.


What uniquely Canadian elements do you try to incorporate into your event? 

One important part of the competition is the inclusion of a new work by a Canadian composer. This year, composer Dinuk Wijeratne has written this work for us, and the experience of hearing multiple quartets perform the work is thrilling. We see the different approaches to the work and like a kaleidoscope, we see different patterns and shapes and colours emerge. 

As we are in the Banff National Park, the inspiration and beauty of this iconic Canadian place is a defining part of the experience. Mountains everywhere you look and wildlife strolling across campus are all part of BISQC. 


How can people watch this year’s edition?

The entire competition will be available right here on the Violin Channel via livestream. Archived performance videos are available at Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity YouTube Channel at: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheBanffCentre/playlists


For more information on BISQC or Director Barry Shiffman, please visit www.bisqc.ca.

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