New Orford Proves Poised Quartet In Beethoven Concert

New Orford Quartet members (from left) Manker and Wan hail from the Toronto Symphony, Crow and Nowlin (center and right), from the Montreal Symphony. (Alain Lefort)
New Orford Quartet members hail from both the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
From left: Cellist Brian Manker, violinists Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow; violist Eric Nowlin. (Alain Lefort)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – Almost all the best professional string quartets in North America are based at universities. The members of the Emerson Quartet teach at Stony Brook, the Brentano is at Yale, the St. Lawrence at Stanford, the Miró at UT Austin – and the list goes on.

Jonathan Crow is Toronto Symphony concertmaster. (
Violinist Jonathan Crow
Concertmaster, Toronto Symphony

So it’s unusual to encounter a top-notch quartet that isn’t attached to 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).

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 sometimes 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.

Violinist Andrew Wan
Violinist Andrew Wan
Concertmaster, Montreal Symphony

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.

Violist Eric Nowlin
Violist Eric Nowlin
Associate principal, Toronto Symphony

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.

The New Orford has 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. The quartet will travel to Westchester, N.Y., in December, Palm Beach, Fla., in January, and will perform in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, in February. Recent American engagements have taken the New Orford to the Washington, D.C., Philips Collection, to Chicago, Dallas and Santa Fe.

Cellist Brian Manker
Cellist Brian Manker
Principal cello, Montreal Symphony

The name Orford may ring bells for veteran chamber-music enthusiasts. The original Orford String Quartet was founded in 1965 at the Orford Arts Centre in Quebec, and soon attached itself to the University of Toronto. The ensemble toured extensively – more than 2,000 concerts on six continents – and was widely regarded as Canada’s foremost string quartet. It disbanded in 1991.

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.

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 is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.

New Orford Quartet recordings on the Bridge and Naxos labels
The New Orford Quartet has recorded works of Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven and Jacques Hétu for Bridge and Naxos.