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They knew it would be a high note, but they didn’t imagine how high. As first violinist Min-Jeong Koh of the Cecilia String Quartet put it, “We made history.”
The last time a Canadian quartet triumphed at the Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) was in 1992 when the St. Lawrence String Quartet won, propelling them to international recognition. Last month, eight Canadians took home top prizes at the 2010 Competition: the Cecilia won first place and the Afiara String Quartet came in second.
“I didn’t think we would win BISQC,” said Koh, who is married to the Afiara’s cellist, Adrian Fung. “I was just thrilled to be at the competition.”
The Cecilia quartet, which takes its name from St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was founded in 2004 by violinist Sarah Nematallah and cellist Rebecca Wenham at the University of Toronto. Koh and violist Caitlin Boyle make up the other half of this all-female ensemble.
“When we played together, we felt something special happening and audiences seemed to respond to us. It was then that we decided to see how far we could take it,” Nematallah said. “It was scary, but it was a wonderful period of growth and learning in all of our lives.”
Just days after their big win in Banff though, the Cecilia announced Wenham was leaving the group for California and being replaced by Canadian cellist Rachel Desoer, whom the girls said they already knew by reputation.
“The timing of Rebecca’s leaving was unfortunate…although her decision came at a difficult moment, the four of us have been working towards BISQC for years,” Nematallah said. “It made the whole experience that much more emotionally intense. It was a bittersweet win.”
While making sacrifices for the quartet was “mostly worth it,” Wenham said life had begun pulling her in different directions.
“Playing string quartets is about the best thing you can do as a musician,” she said. “But it does come with complications unique to the genre. As a young quartet you never fully unpack your suitcase; when you get home from touring, you start packing again because you are moving to a new city, a new residency.”
So after six years of rehearsing six hours a day in her living room “with nothing more than some hope and lots of snacks from Rosie Robin’s,” Wenham decided it was time to move on. “Now I think I’ll do some yoga, eat some Mexican food and be in love,” she said. “And maybe I’ll unpack.”
The winning group banks $25,000 and a coveted concert tour at BISQC and Shiffman, who last month joined Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music as associate dean of its Glenn Gould School, where the Cecilia was recently appointed resident quartet fellows, said the Cecilia and the Afiara are two of the greatest quartets to have emerged from Canada in a long time.
“This is by no means a fluke. It’s a huge recognition of the significant commitment this country has made in chamber music,” he said. “It was emotional to see them take the stage with no apologies. The juries cried—they went through three boxes of Kleenex. The levels of the top groups were quite close (with Quatuor Zaide from France in third place), but it was not a contentious vote at all.”
André Roy heard every note played at the competition. Despite some bias—he coached the Cecilia at McGill University for the last two years—he said it was the group’s willingness to adapt to changes and let go of ego that made them a winning team. “The pressure was big. It’s like going to the Vancouver Olympics and playing in front of your own crowd,” Roy said. “I had the feeling the extra pressure made them come together more as a group.”
As for the new girl who has to fill Wenham’s shoes, “I’m not feeling (the pressure) too much at the moment, because I have too much work and I’m having so much fun doing it,” said Desoer, who studied with many of the same teachers as her new colleagues.
Asked what change Desoer has brought to the quartet aside from a new mix of musical energies and ideas, “Different hair colour?” Nematallah said. “I’m still the shortest girl, so no change!” added Koh.