Rolston String Quartet Takes Top Prize at 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition

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The Rolston String Quartet, First Prize Laureates of the 12th Banff International String Quartet Competition, after the award ceremony on September 4, 2016.

After an exciting seven days, and a dramatic moment involving a broken cello string, the Rolston String Quartet, whose members all hail from Canada, has won the 12th Banff International String Quartet Competition. 

“It’s absolutely a lifelong dream as a Canadian musician to win this string quartet competition,” says second violinist Jeffrey Dyrda. “It’s beyond anything that we thought could happen.”

The quartet, made up of Dyrda, Luri Lee, violin, Hezekiah Leung, viola and Jonathan Lo, cello, formed in 2013 right here at Banff Centre during our Chamber Music Residency. The Rolston String Quartet takes its name from Thomas Rolston, famed violinist and founder of the Music and Sound programs at Banff Centre. In fact, Luri Lee plays a violin on loan from the Rolston Family. 

“Because of the special reality that a Canadian quartet named ‘the Rolston’ just won this competition, the opportunities are tenfold for this particular group,” says Barry Shiffman, executive director of BISQC. “So we’re seeing specific Canadian-mandated presenters that have already approached us saying ‘we want them.’”

As the First Prize Laureates, they will begin a three-year career development program worth over $150,000, including concert tours throughout Europe and North America, a two-week Banff Centre residency which includes recording an album, and $25,000 in cash.

This year’s competition ran from August 29 to September 4, and consisted of five intense rounds of classical, Romantic and contemporary repertoire. The Rolston String Quartet remained a favourite throughout, winning-over attentive audience members with pieces by Haydn, Ravel, and Schubert, and playing a beautiful and powerful rendition of Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 8 in E Minor for their finale on Sunday afternoon. 

But it was during the Canadian Commission round, playing the Banff Centre co-commissioned Quartet No. 1 by Zosha Di Castri, where the Rolston String Quartet truly showed its mettle. About six minutes into the nine-minute piece, the quartet members abruptly stopped and lowered their bows to their sides. 

“We’ve broken a string,” said Dyrda, about Jonathan Lo’s cello. There was a collective gasp from the audience, as the quartet walked offstage to remedy the situation. They returned, after a few minutes of harried restringing, to a hearty round of applause and began the difficult piece over again. 

Apparently, second time’s a charm.

“I’m very grateful and glad that they didn’t panic at all,” says Lo of his fellow musicians, (though first violinist Luri Lee admits that her cool exterior backstage was all show).

That persistence and heart is what kept the Rolston String Quartet at the top of many audience members’ lists.

“I like them very much and I have all the way along,” says full week passholder Jean Valikoski of Campbell River, B.C. “I remember them from the first day where we heard Bartók, Bartók, Bartók and they played the last Bartók and it just woke the whole hall up. That’s when they first engaged me and they’ve never disappointed.”

In second and third places were Tesla Quartet, from Russia, South Korea and the United States, and Castalian Quartet, from the United Kingdom, who took home prizes of $12,000 and $8,000 respectively. And, new for this year’s competition, all seven quartets who didn’t advance to the finals received career development grants of $4,000. 

For the Rolston Quartet, this award follows their Grand Prize win from the Chamber Music Yellow Springs Competition, as well as prizes from the M-Prize and Bordeaux International String Quartet Competitions.

But BISQC and Banff Centre hold a special place in the young group’s heart. 

“The Rolston name means a lot to us and to this place,” says Dyrda. 

“It’s a big inspiration for us as Canadian musicians in everything that we do. Coming here for this competition and being associated with that name, I think, really just caused us to work as hard as we could.”

And that work is about to pay off in a career-defining way. The 2013 BISQC winners, the Dover Quartet from the USA, have gone on to win the Cleveland Quartet Award, and have performed over 120 concerts per year. They’ve also been called “the young American string quartet of the moment” by The New Yorker

Those types of accolades are just a peek into the potential future of our newest laureates, who will next return to Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where they’re the graduate quartet-in-residence, and prepare for the adventure ahead. 

For now, they have a lot to celebrate, though their immediate plans are fairly modest, according to Luri Lee. 

“Sleep!”

See the complete list of prize winners here. You can watch all the performances from this year’s competition on our YouTube channel.