O Canada!

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And oomph, that was Banff!

We have this joke in quartet that Chris bathes with eternal good humour in the spring of positivity. Faced with the catastrophic or frankly mundane, our cellist usually reacts by outstretching his arms and proclaiming that very day to be the greatest of all time. He did so when Sini’s bow snapped in two during a public masterclass, he did so when KLM stranded our music-filled luggage on the tarmac, and when he head-butted a rocky mountain and bled from his temple, his life reached impossibly wonderful heights. And so, Chris saunters on voicing the well-worn catchphrase “this is the greatest [insert subject here] of all time”.

The thing is, when we arrived in Canada, it soon became apparent that most things in that extraordinarily diverse and welcoming land lived up to Chris’s insatiably optimistic outlook. And not just through his rose tinted eyes (the irony being that he’s colourblind).

We rocked up in the mountains after nightfall, so that particular spectacle would wait until the next morning, or whatever time of day our jet-lagged bodies believed it to be. Even in the dark, the Banff Centre – our home for the next week – was impressive. Our accommodation was sumptuous, the food a triumph of human achievement and the facilities – from the swimming pool to our rehearsal studio overlooking Banff National Park’s majestic peaks – world-class. I later met a chap who introduced himself as ‘Head of Fundraising’, and shook his hand to within a twitch of tendonitis.

Alas, we were not in the Rockies to hike or bout with grizzlies, but for a competition, and a biggie at that: the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. The very concept of pitting young quartets against each other is so at odds with the ideals of chamber music that one battles less the other participants and more one’s own head during these remarkably intense affairs. A competition reaches deep into the psyche of a quartet and lays bare all strengths, weaknesses and everything in between. The trick, I believe, lies in understanding each other’s reactions to this most inhuman of situations, offering support even when one might be struggling individually, and channeling a collision of energy (more suited to a bunker under CERN) into performances that, ultimately, communicate exactly who you are. Never has ‘just be yourself’ been more appropriate advice, yet so difficult to achieve.

Having said all that, the team at Banff did a truly astounding job of creating an environment in which the quartets could just get on with music-making. They set the benchmark for how a competition should be run, looking after the smallest details without fuss and with the most sensitive perception of the inner-workings of a musician under pressure. This also fed the healthiest, most comforting sense of camaraderie between ensembles from all over the world. Of course everyone wanted to be successful (whatever that means), but there existed the sensation that we were willing each other on, out of empathy, respect and unity.

Then there was the audience, featuring the globe’s most committed bunch of string quartet enthusiasts. They shared the campus with us, whipping up an infectious buzz and dizzying levels of encouragement. I’d never experienced anything like it. “Rule Britannia”, one American visitor bellowed in the lunch queue. Their knowledge, dedication and outright love of our craft sets BISQC apart. At the end of our performance in the Final they erupted into a frenzy of support that will sustain me for a long time. During our ‘Death and the Maiden’ it felt like a week’s worth of emotion had been compressed into 40 minutes of Schubert. To come out the other end with such backing meant the world, and that’s not to mention the legions watching online back home.

After the Final, ceremony and soirée (fabulous canapés I might add), I sat down with some dear new Canadian friends to read music – fuelled by scotch and laughter – long into the night. For me, this was the highlight of my time in Banff, interacting – through true chamber music making – with people I’d only just met, cementing connections for life and playing Elgar, Haydn and Brahms without judgement. By 4am I was displaying my full prowess with a ping-pong bat. Some things are designed to be competed. Others, probably not.

We came third in the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. “The greatest third prize of all time.” Right, Chris?

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