I remembered that months later, watching the audience at the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition. For a week in August, 1,000 spectators watched 10 of the world’s finest string quartets (all under the age of 35) perform 40 concerts. The average age of the audience had to be over 70. There were so many bald patches that from the back the audience resembled a commercial turnip patch, just as the swedes were breaking the surface. The concertgoers had trouble getting around the steep campus, but they didn’t miss a note: read scores, kept score, twitched and bobbed to the performances, gossiped, attended lectures, cut in line at the bars.
“It was like an orgy,” Shiffman said. “They couldn’t get enough of that music.”
Why did it mean so much to them? What is a string quartet, in the end? A few instruments trying to create as much feeling as possible in a strictly limited period of time. Is it any wonder that people approaching the end of their lives would find that a compelling metaphor? The final winner was chosen by mathematical algorithm, but the result was an anti-climax: The audience cared more about their physical experience of the music. The sooner we learn to judge art not by its perfection, but by its capacity to make us feel complicated and human, the better off art will be. Art won’t save us, of course, but at least it’s one consolation for the fact that we can’t stick around.
Ian Brown is a staff writer and the current Banff Centre Globe and Mail Canada correspondent.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for Henk Guittart. He is director of Fall and Winter Creative Music Residencies, not as the article stated co-head of the classical music program.