Toronto Summer Music Festival (Part 1): The New Orford Quartet Celebrates 10 years

New Orford Quartet, photo by Sian Richards

New Orford Quartet, photo by Sian Richards


The New Orford Quartet presented a mixed program of quartets, on July 12th 2019 at Walter Hall .

New Orford Quartet:

  • Andrew Wan, violin

  • Jonathan Crow, violin

  • Eric Nowlin, viola

  • Brian Manker, cello

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in D Major, Op.20, No.4 (Hob.III:34)

  • Allegro di molto

  • Un poco adagio, affettuoso

  • Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese 

  • Presto, scherzando 

Christos Hatzis: String Quartet No.5 “The Transforming”

  • Pesach

  • La Pieta (Jerusalem) 

  • Regeneration 

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in C Major, Op.59, No.3

  • Introduzione: Andante con moto--Allegro vivace

  • Andante con moto quasi allegretto

  • Menuetto: Grazioso

  • Allegro molto

The art of the string quartet, raised to a very high level in the musical life of Vienna by Haydn and Mozart, acquired yet greater prestige there through the work of Beethoven. The results include three compositions known as the Razumovsky quartets Op 59 of 1805-06, works where the combination of abstraction and passion represented a new peak of the genre, which moved Goethe to describe the quartet as ‘four rational people conversing with each other’.  “” martin geck, Beethoven

this summer’s round of NBA free-agency drama has been the most bonkers in recent memory. as i write this i’m still shaking from the revelation that russell westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder is now russell westbrook of the Houston Rockets (who can you trust in this world anymore?). i still remember where i was sitting in when, just last summer, westbrook’s dearly beloved teammate paul george swore to heaven and earth and everything in between that oklahoma was his home for the foreseeable future. this month he announced he’ll running off to the Los Angeles Clippers to form a superteam with our own expat Raptor, kawhi leanord. so of course westbrook too looked to form his own superteam. these player movements used to be exciting until the longevity of their commitments became more worthless than the paper on which they sign their exorbitant and soon-to-be-traded contracts on. what’s the point of buying a player’s jersey if its relevance won’t survive the calendar year? these athletes could learn a couple things commitment and brand loyalty from chamber musicians. take the members of the New Orford Quartet (NOQ) for example, this summer they are celebrating their ten years of making music together (yes, i admit that’s quite the segue).

 The NOQ are something of a superteam, composed of concertmasters and section-leaders from some of north-america’s top orchestras: jonathan crow (Toronto Symphony Orchestra); andrew wan (Montreal Symphony Orchestra); eric nowlin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra) and brian manker (Montreal Symphony Orchestra). the original Orford Quartet (named after the town of orford in southern quebec) was formed in 1965 and remained active until 1991. the program they’re performing for the second night of the Toronto Summer Music festival is near identical in format to their first performance together ten years ago at the Orford Arts Centre: haydn and beethoven quartets separated by a contemporary canadian composition commissioned by the NOQ. 

the evening began with the 34th string quartet composed by joseph haydn (he wrote 68 in total); it’s the fourth quartet of haydn’s Opus 20, nicknamed the ‘Sun quartets’. he is one of the most prolific composers in the classical canon, known as ‘the father of the string quartet’ he brought the format to new dimensions that would serve as a conceptual platter for beethoven’s cerebral densities and the refracted radiances of mozart’s ideas for the genre. his quartets, like his piano sonatas, have the quality of a vibrant revelry that often convery little strain but can still be performed with emphasis. the first movement, Allegro con spirito, of his Quartet No.60 is a great example of that. playing with emphasis is exactly what makes a NOQ performance memorable, it is an emphasis that engages the presence of the audience and conveys a strong belief in the spirit of the compositions they perform. back in april when i had the pleasure of hosting violinist leslie ashworth’s review of the NOQ’s all-beethoven program, she didn’t fail to notice the power of their stage presence: 

New Orford Quartet, photo by Alain Lefort

New Orford Quartet, photo by Alain Lefort

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. “” leslie ashworth, for Blue Riband

the piece unfolds in a four-movement format; the first of which, Allegro di molto, is a lively introduction of recurrent notes variably expressed by the four instruments, and streaked occasionally with interjections of a meandering melody. the dexterity of the NOQ in keeping this pace is a noteworthy combination of technical finesse and technological savviness: instead of sheet music, the scores were read on tablets whose virtual pages were turned via a foot pedal, thus adding more substance to my forthcoming compliment that these musicians seem to bow their instruments with their entire body. the pace slows down in the second movement (Un poco adagio) with  four variations on a single theme. the cello takes much of the foreground with the beautifully lacquered sound manker is able to caress out of the instrument. in the third (Menuetto)and fourth (Presto) movements, the velocity of crow and wan on violins is a truly thrilling thing to behold. Crow, as always, was technically impeccable, and wan’s alacrity--bouncing back and forth on his chair--gave the performance a crackling electricity.

next on the list was the aforementioned NOQ commission, of canadian-greek composer christos hatzis’s String Quartet No.5 “The Transforming”. The choice of the commission fits naturally into the theme of the festival ‘Beyond Borders’ (incidentally, NOQ violinist jonathan crow is also the artistic director of the festival). i must admit that coming into hatzis’s Quartet No.5, my expectations were bracing for overly cerebral music that is antagonistic towards the proliferation of melodic lines, with the occasional awkwardly landed jump into the ethereal sounds of ‘spiritual music’. these a priori reservations perhaps result from the venom of boredom that embalms my interest at the onset of religious music, or from having tried my damndest to follow through with the twenty-three page caption that accompanied the announcement of the composition. even a bullet-point distillation of the concepts revolving behind the music is still cause for a brief but memorable migraine: 

The story of the Passion of Christ, especially the real and mentally attainable possibility of bodily regeneration, transmutation and resurrection, can be told by (non-objective) Pythagorean harmonic ratios and “Golden-Ratio” music intervals and can be understood as metaphors of certain relatively recent postulates of advanced physics and mathematics. “” christos hatzis, String Quartet No. 5 (The Transforming) An Anthroposophical Approach 

hmmm...sure. the music itself, however, is quite different from the essay. (that’s the supreme license of the musical artform: how much it allows one to still enjoy a piece while simultaneously rinsing one’s hands clean of all its supremely divine associations). whereas beethoven and haydn wrote quartets for strings, it appears hatzis has written a quartet against strings. that is in fact a compliment. perhaps it’s the vividity with which the NOQ performs, but it seemed as if hatzis intended for them to saw their instruments in half with their bows. throughout the three ‘movements’ (between which there are no noticeable breaks), there are these violent vibrations building up into a searing crescendo that is then subsumed into yet another development. it’s actually really cool. the effect begins as a barely audible vibrato, usually on violin, accompanied by ominous pizzicato on cello and viola. this motif appears over and over in a quartet whose irregular moods seems to accelerate like a slow moving pendulum, quickening to a sizzling tempo as its approaches its limits. there are equal parts for all four instruments, the violins are occasionally found in the background, riding up in low gear; the occasional deep and chasmic yawns escape from the cello and fragments of a beat break out on viola (nowlin was a brilliant unit all evening) and is then snuffed by the continuous forward push of activity. it is at times passionates, at times taken by a warm melody, then at times cerebral and somnolent--all in fair amounts to culminate in a work that allows these very capable performers to flex their capacities for phrasing and intonation. (it’s the kind of music that would be quite befitting as a soundtrack to Netflix’s The OA---a compliment of the highest order). 

with the main event of the evening--at least as far as i’m concerned--the NOQ had a splash of a time playing beethoven’s String Quartet in C Major, Op.59, No.3. to call their performance effortless would be inaccurate--there was much effort, indeed andrew wan’s heavy breathing is a highly recommended ASMR--but it’s apparent that the usual cautions for technical accuracy has been subsumed by the feeling, acquired in unison over the last decade, that to play a beethoven quartet well is concomitant with feeling it deeply and being in the music-moment. 

goethe, the other wolfgang of the eighteenth century allegedly described this quartet as ‘four rational people conversing with each other’. an apt and evocative description, but watching the NOQ play it, after ten years of doing so together, the formality of rationality (for rationality is indeed a formality) has been mixed in with a freeness of expression, scherzando, cradling the piece with as much anticipation as the hatzis quartet before it, and as much playfulness as is necessary for improvisation. 

in summa summarum, i give this program 4.26 upside down ipads out of 5 ‘whoa! I can believe the composer is actually in the building!’s :)

the Toronto Summer Music festival runs from july 11th to august 3rd.