Indivisible by Four

A closer look at String Quartets around the world-The 2022 Banff and ARD String Quartet Competitions

by Florian Riem


Two years of pandemic might have hurt orchestras and opera houses, but there is one area that certainly grew in popularity: chamber music. Three competitions have experienced a wealth of new young ensembles and an exemplary level of playing: the International Chamber Music Competition "Schubert and Modern Music“ in Graz, Austria as well as the Banff and ARD String Quartet Competitions. 
In this article, we look back at the two string quartet competitions with a number of short interviews and would like to invite you to immerse yourself a little in the art of string quartet playing- almost a separate universe in the music world.

The Isidore String Quartet, (First Prize, 2022 Banff String Quartet Competition)

Mark Steinberg

Mark Steinberg, Violinist of the Brentano Quartet


Oliver Wille, Violinist of the Kuss Quartet (©Giorgia Bertazzi)

Life in a String Quartet (I)
Arnold Steinhard, The Guarneri Quartet

We had no concerts scheduled, no manager, not even a name, but we now constituted a string quartet. Serkin and Schneider helped us celebrate. Rudi brought a bottle of champagne and Sascha lots of advice. „Don´t socialize together, spouses shouldn´t mix into quartet business, no postmortems after concerts“, he sermonized with a wicked grin…. But we couldn´t really finish the celebration without playing. On that late-summer afternoon, as the leaves in southern Vermont were just beginning to turn, the four or us sat down quite alone in a small practice studio and opened the volume of collected Mozart string quartets to the D minor, K. 427. As David´s gentle descending line, John and Michael´s pulsating figures, and the sweet sadness of my overlaid melody poured out, I had the feeling of arriving home, of absolute rightness.
Mozart´s wife, Constanze, talked about this quartet in her memoirs. She and Mozart were in the same room when she went into labor with their first child, Raimund Leopold. Mozart was composing at his desk and at the piano. When she would have a contraction, he would interrupt his work and came to the bed to comfort her, and as soon as the contraction was over, he would return to his work. This went on for several hours, during which he composed a significant part of the D minor Quartet. If Mozart thought of the quartet as an announcement of his first child´s birth, then some two hundred years later our playing of his quartet was another kind of birth announcement.
Arnold Steinhard: Indivisible by Four (1998) ©Farrar Straus Giroux, New York

Listen: The Guarneri Quartet plays Mozart, String Quartet K.421 in d minor

The 2022 Banff International String Quartet Competition

Planned for 1983 as a one-time event on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Banff Centre, its success helped to establish the Banff International String Quartet Competition as a triennial event. Among its laureates are some of the most important string quartets today: the Dover, Miro, St. Lawrence, Hagen, Calidore, Mandelring and Kuss quartets. 

Director Barry Shiffman writes: "There is much talk of classical music audiences declining and questions as to the market place for laureates. In the chamber music world, there has been very considerable growth of marketplace, particularly in the explosion of summer festivals and the proliferation of new concert hall construction associated with these festivals. My work at Rockport Music in Massachusetts is one example. A small chamber music festival is now a 12 month a year busy organization with a gorgeous concert hall. Similar story with the La Jolla Chamber Music festival in California and many others.
BISQC was such a beautiful and uplifting  success. It was by far our most successful to date. Our dream has always been to truly change what a competition can be. Create a true supportive, uplifting experience for all musicians, audience, and jury. I feel our dream has become a has been a long journey."

One of the novelties of the 2022 Banff Competition was the creation of a "Mentor in Residence" position, a non voting, non jury faculty member who attends all dress rehearsals and gives feedback, advice and support for all participating quartets. Appointed to this position was Mark Steinberg, violinist of the Brentano Quartet.

WFIMC: Can you describe your role at the Banff Competition? I understand this was a new idea- do you think it worked well? How did the quartets respond?

Mark Steinberg: My role was as mentor in residence, which, in my view, meant I had the best job in the world; I was just there to do my best to help the quartets feel as good as they possibly could. The very idea of having someone with that role is a great testament to Barry Shiffman. It is just the sort of imaginative and caring inspiration that is the hallmark of his vision. Joel Krosnick had served in this role in previous competitions, and those are, of course, big shoes to fill. I was surprised and delighted that most of the quartets actually came to play for me, and I got to talk with and spend time with all of them. I do think it made a difference to many of them to have someone to bounce ideas off of, to get encouragement from, and generally just to have another friendly face around, someone who could and did listen to them all with immense pleasure and was spared the onus of judgment. I was touched by their trust and deeply moved by their commitment. 

WFIMC: What was your overall impression of BICQC? Do you think Covid has hurt chamber music as a whole, or are there positive aspects and developments?

Mark Steinberg: I thought that BISQC 2022 was a stunning celebration and triumph. I teared up at the end seeing all the groups sitting on stage after having shared so much and so deeply with everyone all week. Many, many of the quartet members said to me that it felt more like a festival than a competition, and there is nothing I would rather hear from them. It was clear, as well, that the audiences were mesmerized and touched. There are still questions to be answered about the impact of the pandemic on audience size, and on the general place that performing arts play in our lives, but one would never know that from BISQC, except perhaps for the gratitude that so many felt and expressed at being able to be there live. I hope that the difficult experiences of isolation and the cessation of normal concert activity will prove to have enhanced the depth of how we all can listen to each other and delve again into this profound music. These nine quartets certainly provide plenty of reasons for optimism that way.

WFIMC: Looking back at 30 years of playing in the Brentano, what is the state of quartet playing today, compared to 1992?

Mark Steinberg: It's hard to answer this as someone who is involved in quartet playing daily, much as those who are around children as they grow rarely notice how they shoot up as easily as those who see them less often. I spend a lot of time trying to steer younger quartets toward freedom, spontaneity and generosity of expression. These are not always the easiest virtues to access when one feels under scrutiny, but so many of the groups at BISQC were able to play with abandon, joy and magnanimity even in a competition setting. The external world of quartet playing is not all that interesting to me, but the music making will fascinate me always. I got to hear nine groups who clearly love the art as much as I do, and nothing could make me happier.

Listen: Banff Intl. String Quartet Competition 2022 winner Isidore String Quartet (USA) plays Beethoven´s Op. 132

Life in a String Quartet (II)
Eckart Runge, Artemis Quartet

Of course the quartet is a very important part of myself. I think, you would not play quartet if you were not a bit crazy for it. It is an incredible effort and a crazy amount of work, you have to invest a lot of passion and commitment.
When we were young, it felt like we had unlimited time, we could simply rehearse for eight hours and then afterwards practice for yourself- we were just students when we founded the quartet. But as you grow older, you have a lot more commitments and, at the same time, higher expectations in the quartet.
Eckart Runge, 2014

©Jakob Buhre, Concerti, 2014

The ARD International Music Competition 2022

At the same time as the Banff Competition (an unfortunate coincidence due to Covid, and orchestra and hall schedules) the ARD International Music Competition presented its 2022 edition. The ARD, founded in 1952, consists in reality of not one, but of four competitions: this year, it featured Piano, Flute, Trombone, and String Quartet. Held for the 14th time, the string quartet discipline has seen many major quartets from around the world as its winners, among them the Tokyo, Schumann, Wilanow, Eder, Auryn, Petersen, Artemis, Ebène, Apollon Musagète, Novus and Calidore String Quartets.

Having won First Prize at the Premio Paolo Borciani intl. String Quartet Competition in Reggio Emilia, Kuss Quartet violinist Oliver Wille was on the 2022 jury of the ARD. Born 1975 in Berlin, he also serves as Professor for Chamber Music at the Hannover Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien, and as Artistic Director (together with Antje Weithaas) of the Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition in Hannover.

WFIMC: What was your impression of this year´s ARD String Quartet Competition?

Oliver Wille: It was great! I was worried a bit whether I would have difficulties judging as I know many of the string quartets. Not that they would be my students, but I might have seen them at some academies or festivals. Then again, I was really looking forward to the competition knowing that the quartets would all be „grown up“ ensembles- musicians who dedicate themselves with great diligence and intuition. And it turned out to be just that: a very high level of playing with many, very different quartets which have made really strong appearances. Astonishing for me was that besides the classics, repertoire such as Ligeti or Dutilleux was performed very, very well.

WFIMC: There were 17 quartets at the ARD, in Banff there were 10- are there still that many great ensembles out there?

Oliver Wille: Well, Munich invites a larger number of quartets, but Banff actually covers travel expenses and accommodation  (besides that, it also takes quite an effort to travel to Banff), so the number of ensembles is limited to 10. In Munich, there is no such limit. On the other hand, Munich gives the opportunity to play also to certain ensembles that might not yet be ready to pass all three rounds but who take the competition as a first experience in the world of string quartet competitions. An experience that can be nevertheless be a positive one, even if you don´t advance.

WFIMC: Do you think the number of string quartets is growing in general?

Oliver Wille: Actually, I think there are less quartets now. A couple of years there was a real boom, but the pandemic has caused the number to shrink a little. To be honest, I thought there would be a lot less quartets and am surprised and glad to see that people are not all focused on getting a „safe job“ in order to make a living, but there still is this vision, this idealism of creating a career, a musical identity by yourself. 
But the question remains: what can competitions really do for young string quartets? The time is gone when a competition win with one great tour could jumpstart a quartet career. Performances have not necessarily become fewer, but promoters have changed their way of programming. They want to be more involved, want to choose artists by themselves, they choose certain festival themes or program ideas rather than having a string quartet series on its own.

Life in a String Quartet (III)
Sonia Simmenauer

Life and work of a string quartet is a constant balancing act, a walk on the edge. First the narrow path to the top, then the narrow path that the four always have to walk chained together. If one step out, he drags the others in the abyss. This is true on stage as in life. The concert itself is always and every time the expression of an enormous discipline, carried out together.

Sonia Simmenauer: Muss es sein?
©Berenberg Verlag, 2008

WFIMC: Looking at some of the quartets, you get the impression that these four musicians, studying together at the same university, got together especially in order to try a competition. They might have played a concert or two, but not much more. How was the Kuss Quartet established? How did you find each other?

Oliver Wille: We were 14 and we didn´t have competitions in mind when we first played together. And we didn´t have a violist, we only had three violinists, so everyone had to play viola as well. Our teacher, Eberhard Fels, made us learn single movements, not entire quartets, to get familiar with the world of quartet playing and with this incredible repertoire. And I think its still the same with most quartets today: they get together as they all share the love for this music. But its wrong to think that a competition would be a guaranteed career for a quartet. It can always only be one stepping stone.
Back then, there was only a handful, and today it still is only a handful of quartets that call string quartet playing their profession. Many more groups are „patchwork“ ensembles, and those have grown substantially in recent years. 

WFIMC: Did the Kuss Quartet also loose competitions? What do you remember from the competitions you played yourself?

Oliver Wille: Well, there is no such thing as „loosing“ competitions. There was one University contest where we got nothing, and there there was Banff, where we won „only" Second Prize in 2001. And we felt like we were treated very unfairly. This feeling hurts, especially if you feel that the jury did not understand you or if there was something fishy in the judgement process. Today, I completely understand why we didn´t win: we were lacking a certain flexibility, a certain openness. We were not ready. But it hurt because we only won second prize, and because aside from the prizemoney there was no benefit for us, no concerts. That said- today it would have been a completely different story. Banff has a fabulous program now where every winner gets to play; every quartet gets coaching, gets concerts, and everyone can benefit tremendously from the competition.

Listen: ARD International Music Competition 2022 Winner: The Barbican Quartet 

The winner´s tour of the 2022 ARD String Quartet competition will take place in April 2023 and will be presented by Impresariat Simmenauer, a Berlin artist management known around the world as the first address for string quartets. Director of the Quartet department Linda Uschinski writes: „The ARD international Music Competition is one of the most important competitions, not only in the discipline string quartet. Our focus at this edition was nevertheless on the quartets, as these are the driving force behind our agency. With great joy we realized that there was not even one male-only quartet among this year´s ensembles, but instead many female or female dominated, and international (mixed nationalities) groups. Not so long ago, the field was mainly European and almost exclusively male.
But apart from being a competition, it was really a celebration of string quartets- with many outstanding talents, and with all the amazing music that this genre has to offer. At the final, it was a head-to-head race. The jury decided on the Barbican Quartet, while the audience preferred Quartet Integra. Both awards were well deserved, and both ensembles showed impressive performances. We wish both of them a successful future and look forward to work with the Barbican Quartet on their winner´s tour!

Besides the tour offered by Impresariat Simmenauer, there are usually a lot of invitations from presenters, concert halls, and radio stations. "String Quartet is one of the audience´s favourites, and many presenters attend the competition, so there is always a surprising number of engagements. Not necessarily just for the First Prize, but also for all the other laureates", says ARD Competition Managing Director Elisabeth Kozik.

Life in a String Quartet (IV)
Günter Pichler, Alban Berg Quartet

Since we didn´t know how emotional our very last performance was going to be, we decided not to play in Vienna. The concert should be at one of our favourite halls, far away from home but still among friends: in Buenos Aires, at the unbelievably beautiful Teatro Colon. But then, in the last minute, we received a message from the director of the new culture center in Beijing. He justified his request with the words: "You are finishing your career, we are at the beginning. Please come!“ So in the end we played our last concert together in a country without any chamber music culture. But apparently it was not without success: when I received a call from the president of China´s Central Conservatory in Beijing recently, he told me „since you played your concerts for us three years ago, our school now has 60 new string quartets!“
Günter Pichler, 2012

©Florian Schär, 2012

Things look indeed promising. We hope we did arouse your interest to visit one or the other concert featuring one of our member competitions´ string quartet laureates. At the same time, we take the opportunity to invite you to the next WFIMC String Quartet Competitions:

Premio Paolo Borciani Intl. String Quartet Competition 2024

Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition 2025 
Banff International String Quartet Competition 2025 (to be announced)
ARD International String Quartet Competition 2026 (to be announced)