Almost all the best professional string quartets in North America are based at universities. The members of the Emersons teach at Stony Brook, the Brentanos are at Yale, the St. Lawrences at Stanford, the Mirós at UT Austin – and the list goes on.
So it’s unusual to encounter a top-notch quartet that isn’t connected with a college music department. Yet that’s the New Orford String Quartet. This Canadian chamber group is made up of two members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (concertmaster Jonathan Crow and associate principal viola Eric Nowlin) and two members of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (concertmaster Andrew Wan and principal cellist Brian Manker).
Taking the name New Orford String Quartet (with the blessing of the “old” Orford musicians), the new ensemble also got its start at the Orford Arts Centre, in 2009. However, unlike their namesakes, the New Orford players haven’t devoted themselves to chamber music only: their quartet performances have been infrequent, and it has taken them a few years to become widely known. With chairs in two orchestras separated by about 300 miles, it’s a challenge for the quartet to schedule rehearsals and concerts.
The New Orfords have recorded Beethoven’s Quartet in F, Op. 135, for Bridge Records, as well as works by Schubert and Brahms, and on the Naxos label they have captured works by Canadian composer Jacques Hétu. Recent American engagements have taken the New Orfords to the Washington, D.C., Philips Collection, to Chicago, Dallas and Santa Fe. The quartet will travel to Westchester, N.Y., in December, Palm Beach, Fla., in January, and will perform in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont., in February.
On Nov. 4, they put their formidable abilities on display in an all-Beethoven program in the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall. Their poised balance was always in flux, with subtle adjustments made to artfully bring out one instrument, then another. They blended well, and their playing was bright, lively, and often edgy. Perhaps the quartet’s most striking virtue was its ability to turn a musical idea on a dime – to make a sudden, unified shift in dynamics, tempo, and other parameters. This is a very nimble string quartet.
First up was the Quartet in C, Op. 59, No. 3, with Wan in the first violin chair. Its introduction was slow and sustained before it took off at a lively gait. This was clever playing, marked by flashes of intensity that would quickly and playfully evaporate. The second movement was a steady, relentless flow, predominantly dark in tone, but with sunny episodes. By contrast, the third movement was light and airy. And in the fugato, the players dug into their parts with gusto, in a tight performance.
For the Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, Crow took the first violin chair. There was stateliness in the first movement and comical vividness in the second. By contrast, the third movement was rather pedestrian, and the fourth movement was marred by affected hairpin dynamics. The fifth movement fared better: It was warm, sweet, and introspective.
The problematic aspects of Op. 130 foreshadowed problems in the Grosse Fuge – played, as it often is, as the original sixth movement of Op. 130. To be sure, the musicians displayed complete technical mastery of the piece. But large swaths were played with a distorting brutality. This seemed to suggest that the players lacked faith in Beethoven’s notes and felt the need to force the music.
It seems that the New Orford members are as sincerely committed to orchestral playing as they are to chamber music, and I doubt they’ll be leaving their day jobs any time soon. For this reason, their performances are rare, special occasions. They are a remarkable ensemble that belies the assumption that a string player can’t be both an orchestral musician and a quartettiste.
© Colin Eatock 2015