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Yixi Zhang

'Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it' ~ On Banff International String Quartet Competition

September 5, 2013 at 11:59 PM

I love watching international string competitions, so much so that I would commit a big chunk of my vacation time and resources to actually be there to attend the whole event in person whenever I can. Last year I went to Beijing to watch the 2012 Menuhin Competition -- and blogged about it. Last month, my husband and I went to Banff to watch the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition.

Banff beauty
Banff, in Alberta's Rocky Mountains

Why? First of all, it’s a music festival, where at a reasonable cost you could attend somewhere between 40-50 hours of concerts of some major pieces from different periods, every note carefully rehearsed and played by some of the world’s most accomplished young musicians. You also get to attend fine workshops and master-classes, and meet both budding and well-known musicians in one place.

Dover Quartet
First prize went to the Dover Quartet

Getting to know fanatic music lovers whom I didn’t know they existed always puts me in awe as well. And then there are interesting places to see and insights to gain. Most of all, you get to reflect a lot about why you are here and why you do what you do, music or otherwise…

I love the fact that sometimes you have to listen to the same piece played by different groups and you get hear the different interpretations and get to know the piece a lot better after that. I truly believe this is what these works are meant to be listened to -- again and again, played by different musicians. The more I listen to a piece, say, Schubert’s Quartet in G Major, Op.77 No.1, the more I am astonished by its beauty and complexity to the extent that I keep talking about it!

Another astonishment is meeting Rob Kapilow.

Yixi and Rob Kapilow
Me, with Rob Kapilow

If you’ve never heard of him or his book (What Makes It Great?), you are in for a treat! As Eric Friesen rightly puts it, you think you know music until you experienced Rob Kapilow’s talk; the light bulb will go on over your head constantly:

Speaking of listening, it’s one of the constant debates in our house. I listen to a piece of work like an emotional performer – all I care about is the expressiveness of the music and I pay close attention to contours, gestures, colors, emotions and even ideas a piece might reveal to me; whereas my husband considers my approach somewhat flaky, as a frustrated composer, he pays attention to themes and developments, etc. During this BISQC, we both attended Kapilow’s lecture, and I think we finally reached some agreement on this debate.

Do I need to tell you that winning and losing was the last thing I cared about during the competition? Probably not. (Though here is a list of the winners, if you are interested.) But it’s worth mentioning that you kind of have to decide how you approach to such event as a listener: do you listen as a judge to scrutinize everything or enjoy the music as though this is the last concert you get to attend? For me, since I wasn’t paid as a juror and wouldn’t want to do their job either, the choice was pretty obvious. Still, we had to remind ourselves often during such an event as we all have been taught too well to compare and scrutinize.

If you'd like to listen to these performances, you can see several performances on; or listen to archived BISQC’s live stream of all rounds for all groups here.

And I think you might also be interested to know why you actually don't need a Strad to win:

This BISQC lecture will answer a lot questions about what's behind those $$$$$$ fiddles!


From Karen Rile
Posted on September 6, 2013 at 2:39 PM
Thanks for being our intrepid reporter, Yixi, and giving us a front-row seat!
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 6, 2013 at 5:04 PM
Thank you Karen! :)
From Thessa Tang
Posted on September 6, 2013 at 7:12 PM
Thanks for the clip on Rob!
From Paul Deck
Posted on September 9, 2013 at 12:02 PM
I've heard the Dover Quartet, here in Blacksburg a few years ago. They were called the Old City Quartet then. They were fantastic. They're all very passionate players. I hope I will see them again.

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