The New Orford Quartet in Toronto

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I first heard the New Orford Quartet last winter, under less-than-ideal conditions: in a pre-concert performance at a Toronto Symphony concert, in the lobby of Roy Thomson Hall. With the inevitable background noise, it was hard to hear every nuance of their performance – but I heard enough to want to hear them again.

So when I learned that the New Orfords would be playing a concert at Gallery 345, a warehouse space in Toronto’s West End, I made plans to attend.

Unfortunately, very few other people made similar plans. Perhaps the quartet isn’t well enough known to attract a large audience – or perhaps scheduling the concert during the Toronto International Film Festival was unwise. In any case, only a couple of dozen people showed up.

Yet I was reminded of Shakespeare’s words from Henry V: “The fewer men, the greater share of honour.” And it did feel like an honour to be one of a handful of people sitting up close, in the bright, resonant acoustic of Gallery 345, listening to the New Orfords in a solid program by Haydn, Brahms and Canadian composer Jacques Hétu.

For those who don’t know, this ensemble is made up of musicians from Toronto and Montreal. Violinist Jonathan Crow is the Toronto Symphony’s concertmaster, and violinist Andrew Wan holds the same job at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Eric Nowlin is the TSO’s associate principal violist, and Brian Manker is the OSM’s principal cellist. They formed their ensemble in 2008 – taking the name New Orford Quartet with the blessing of the “old” Orford players.

But they don’t sound like a newly minted group. From the first note of Haydn’s Quartet Op. 20 No. 4 they sounded as if they’d been playing together for decades – as if all issues of style and interpretation had long been addressed to everyone’s satisfaction.

Unlike some quartets, the New Orfords don’t appear to strive for a homogenous balance as a supreme, overriding virtue. To be sure, the sound was balanced and unified – but each player also delved deeply into the linear demands of his own particular part. This generated a rich, energized texture that really brought the music to life.

Hétu’s String Quartet No. 1, written in 1972, doesn’t lean in the neo-romantic direction that makes this composer’s later works endearing. The piece is well shaped and structured, but the vocabulary is angular and dissonant. Still, the New Orfords found interesting ways to breathe some feeling into this music, through dramatic contrasts in tempo and dynamics. Only in the final-movement fugato did they seem stymied in their quest for an expressive approach to this notey, gnarly, music.

Brahms’s String Quartet No. 1 was a grand, expansive sweep, in the hands of the New Orfords. Throughout, their tone was polished and bright – with enough vibrato to warm things up nicely. However, in the second movement, the quartet’s penchant for bringing out every detail in a score was perhaps a tad misplaced. Here, restlessness trumped repose, and opportunities for moments of tranquility were sometimes passed over.

All going well, we’ll hear a lot more from the New Orford Quartet – and all going well, they’ll find an audience in Toronto. Let’s hope their demanding commitments to their respective orchestras won’t be too great an impediment to a successful quartet career.

© Colin Eatock 2012

Date posted: September 12, 2012

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