This September, the Rolston String Quartet won first prize at the 12th Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC), which attracts some of the world’s best quartets under 35. Rebecca Franks caught up with the Canadian group – its members are violinists Luri Lee and Jeffrey Dyrda, viola player Hezekiah Leung and cellist Jonathan Lo – in rehearsal mid-competition at the Banff Centre to find out about the group’s musical life so far.
You formed the Rolston String Quartet in Banff a few years ago. How did it come about?
Hezekiah Leung (HL): Three years ago Luri and I were at the Glenn Gould School together in Toronto and wanted to start a quartet. We couldn’t really find the right people there so we decided to call up some friends and form a group for the Banff Chamber Residency Programme which they have each summer. We auditioned, got in and from that point it worked out.
Was there an instant click?
Luri Lee (LL): We weren’t too sure if we were being serious right away, and one of the friends we called was already doing something else. But three of us definitely wanted to continue and we formed from there. Yay!
Jonathan Lo (JL): One big catalyst was the string quartet residency at Rice University in Houston, Texas. That changed our mind-set from ‘Well, we’re not sure’ to ‘Wow, now we have something concrete and an institution supporting us’. That’s where we’ve been for the past two years.
So now you’re back in Banff to take part in BISQC 2016. What was the attraction of this particular competition?
Jeffrey Dyrda (JD): This is such an important place for string quartets with such a big history. It’s always been a dream to be part of this competition.
And the Banff Centre is in a stunning setting in Banff National Park. That must be inspiring?
LL: Oh definitely. There’s something special about it. Many festivals have really pretty views, but somehow Banff is more… oh, I can’t explain…
JD: It feels cosy. It’s nice.
JL: It’s grown from being a much smaller scale of celebration of string quartets to this huge attraction for string quartet enthusiasts and fans. Just to see the audiences that we play for and how dedicated they are to the music is quite special. Also most competitions are done round by round, whereas here virtually everyone gets to play almost all of their repertoire. We’ve already done the Haydn, 20th century and Romantic selections.
And today everyone is playing a new Canadian work, Zosha Di Castri’s String Quartet No. 1. You’re first up so you’re actually giving the world premiere. What’s the piece like?
LL: We got it and we thought, ok, we need a lot of time. It is very complicated and getting the notes under your fingers is difficult. Putting it together has also been difficult. We tried to figure out how to sound like we were almost improvising.
JD: It’s not needlessly complicated. I don’t think it’s difficult for the sake of being difficult – you don’t have something like playing 11 notes against 13. And the effect that it actually creates is very clear, and the colours are really specific. It’s been a cool piece to work with.
Who are your inspirations and influences?
HL: While we were giving concerts in Leipzig, it just so happened that when we were on our way from another competition in Bordeaux, we had this opportunity to see one of our greatest idols, the Hagen Quartet. We went to see them in Berlin and it was a transformational experience.
LL: We are always talking about recordings we’ve been listening to, and that’s how we always find inspiration. And we try to inspire each other because we do such long hours. Otherwise it can be really dreadful! We’re always looking for the meaning of the music.
JD: Coaches like the Brentano String Quartet have been a really big inspiration for us.
And what are the kinds of things you work on and are interested in as a quartet?
HL: We work a lot on character, colour and sound quality.
JD: One of the benefits of being in a quartet is that, for better or worse, you’re sort of forced to adopt the ideals and priorities of the other members. You end up growing very quickly.
Is there any repertoire you feel particularly close to?
JD: We love the Ravel Quartet and Haydn Quartet Op. 77 No. 1 [from this competition].
And what’s next for you?
JL: We’re going to Aldeburgh to do a part-time seminar there.
JD: We’re looking forward to some fish and chips!
With their performance of Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 59 No. 2 in the final, the Rolston String Quartet beat the Tesla and Castalian String Quartets to win the top prize. Straight after, they gave their first ever press conferenece.
How does it feel to win?
HL: It’s been unbelievable. It’s been a dream of ours just to even be here. I think the rest of us feel the same. We’re just so happy to be able to share our music around the world.
JD: It’s a lifelong dream as a Canadian musician to win this string quartet competition. It’s beyond anything we thought would happen.
What have been the highlights for you?
JD: My highlight would be today’s performance. It was the most frightening in a way and we had the least turnaround time between rounds, so maybe that added a level of anxiety. But it was really nice to play that piece.
JL: I would say the same. It’s one of our favourite works.
HL: Just having the opportunity to present a piece we love was a blessing in itself.
LL: The ending of today’s round! It didn’t start very well for myself, but I enjoyed it at the end. I was like, it’s done!
Read our ‘Musical destinations’ piece on Banff in the November 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine, out now