Three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets played by four of the best string players in North America---could this recipe really lead to anything but success? The packed audience for the New Orford String Quartet’s final concert stop on their cross-Canada tour clearly knew the answer to this query. For the last performance of the Mooredale Concerts’ 30th Anniversary season, Walter Hall was filled to the brim Sunday afternoon on April 16, 2019 as everyone eagerly anticipated the New Orford String Quartet’s all-Beethoven program.
The New Orford String Quartet, comprised of Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan (violins), Eric Nowlin (viola), and Brian Manker (cello), was formed in 2009 and carries incredible accolades to its name, including the 2017 JUNO award for best classical album of the year. What is unique about this particular string quartet is the fact that its members hold principal positions in sought-after symphony orchestras in Canada and the U.S. (that of Toronto Symphony, Montreal Symphony, and Detroit Symphony). They are also inspiring teachers – in fact, I’ve had the privilege of studying the viola with Eric Nowlin for a number of years and I have also worked with Jonathan Crow on the violin on many occasions.
The multi-faceted nature of these musicians’ careers informs their approach to string quartet playing immensely. There is a focus on precision and clarity that distinguishes the New Orford String Quartet sound. In the works performed on Sunday, there are often multiple voices supplying numerous layers simultaneously to the collective sound. This poses challenges for the performers in achieving the ideal balance so that individual textures can be discerned, though the four instruments should also come together to project one voice. The New Orford excels at this – there is a sparkling transparency to their sound, yet they also achieve a rich blend.
Perhaps the secret to the New Orford’s vibrant and pristine sound is in their awareness of each other and their performance space. This is surely rooted in their orchestral careers, where they must blend their own sound with 20 other people in their section while also being aware of the parts around them.
The finest performances, whether it’s a symphony, chamber ensemble, or solo recital, celebrate the power of connecting with others. Cellist Brian Manker established a warm rapport with the audience on Sunday from the very outset; thanking the audience for attending and sharing informative details about the works being performed in an enthusiastic manner.
Following this engaging introduction, the New Orford launched full force into Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4. Composed at the pinnacle of Beethoven’s early compositional period, Manker likened this work to a doctoral thesis: Beethoven is proving himself as a master of the string quartet genre following in the footsteps of Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Andrew Wan, sitting as first violinist for this work, highlighted some of the expressive harmonic changes that occur in the phrases through subtle colour changes in his tone. The refinement of articulation and balance within the string quartet sound was impeccable throughout the performance. I was captivated by the New Orford’s playful second movement with continuous momentum allowing the music to glimmer and flow. The third movement’s trio section showcased a rich viola and cello duet between Nowlin and Manker and the fourth movement was propelled by the New Orford’s flawless sense of rhythm and pulse. The audience was thrilled to the bone by this performance, eliciting a “wow, thank you!” exclamation from Manker after the New Orford took their bows.
Next on the program, with Crow taking first violin, was String Quartet No. 10 in E flat Major, Op. 74. Composed in Vienna during his “middle period” around the same time as his famous Symphony No. 5, Beethoven was losing his hearing as he wrote this work. This string quartet carries the nickname “Harp” due to the distinctive rising pizzicato (plucked strings) figure that is showcased in the first movement’s Allegro. It was charming to see the players exchange smiles as they entered musical discussions with each other. The New Orford’s vast dynamic range was brought to the forefront in this work with the feathery soft moments being so breathtakingly clear. Manker also somehow seemed to surmount the impossible in providing the resonant cushion for the quartet sound in such a dry acoustic.
The only thing I found myself wishing for throughout the concert was more spontaneity – everything was so perfectly planned and executed, the quality of sound was so pure, but occasionally, the music calls for heightened emotions and I would have loved for the New Orford to throw caution to the wind and wear their hearts on their sleeves. This is what the great composers understood so well: learn all the compositional rules so that you can abandon every one of them. If there was anything to add to the New Orford’s performance, it would be a sense of abandonment.
I did hear a hint of this abandonment in the finale movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 which was the monumental lone work after intermission. On this chronological journey of Beethoven’s evolution as a composer, this final work on the program represents a mature composer exploring innovative musical territory. Beethoven was completely deaf by this time and the composition was completed less than a year before he died. Where most string quartets contain four movements, this work carries seven, and covers the entire gamut of emotions, as Manker puts it. The New Orford’s interpretation showcased long lines with a spinning sound. The fourth movement, which is the peak of the entire work’s arch-like structure, offered moments for each instrument to shine individually as the players weaved in and out of the group texture. Crow’s virtuosity was also brought into the spotlight in the cadenza-like first-violin flourishes. Another memorable moment was the intimate, melancholy viola solo played sensitively by Nowlin in the opening of the sixth movement. The final movement was fueled by Wan’s fiery energy which seemed to spark the group’s passionate conclusion to this epic afternoon of music making.
In answer to my initial query…the recipe for Sunday’s performance was unanimously successful (with the entire audience on their feet by the final notes). Yes, it was rainy and gloomy outdoors, but indoors, on Sunday, there was nothing but beauty. The New Orford String Quartet touched hearts with the elegance of Beethoven’s lyrical melodies, delighted us with his playful passages, and captivated us with his firecracker virtuosic moments. All the while, they retained tremendous commitment to their polished, shimmering collective sound.
Written by Leslie Ashworth and edited by Michael Zarathus-cook; the New Orford Quartet will be performing at Toronto Summer Music Festival on July 12th at Walter Hall. many thanks to Jonathan Crow and MKI Artists.
Leslie Ashworth is a Canadian violinist, pianist, violist and composer. She has performed in Italy, Quebec, the Aspen Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, Koerner Hall and the Vancouver Convention Centre. She is the winner of the Grand Prize in the Canadian Music Competition and gold medalist of the Passion of Music International Competition in New York City. Ashworth has achieved her ARCT in both Violin and Piano Performance from the Royal Conservatory.