Thursday, 17 January 2013

Live Review: New Orford String Quartet (October 13th 2012)

 Photo by Alain Lefort.
New Orford String Quartet
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
October 13th 2012
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch
On October 13th, Virtuosi Concerts was delighted to present the New Orford String Quartet, a Canadian ensemble comprised of Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan on violin, Eric Nowlin on viola and Brian Manker on cello. The New Orford takes its name from the legendary Orford String Quartet, a chamber music institution that grew to be an integral part of Canada’s musical community over its twenty-six-year career. Since its debut three years ago, the New Orford String Quartet has been the recipient of critical acclaim and rave reviews across the world.
The evening began with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 20, a piece whose diverse array of moods and textures proved a fitting introduction to the Quartet’s musical dexterity. The Allegro di Molto was lively and captivating, while the Un poco Adagio Affettuoso, featuring Wan’s violin, sounded melancholy and smooth as silk. The vibrant Allegretto alla zingarese – “in gypsy style” – gave Manker’s cello a chance to shine with dazzling bow work. Presto scherzando – “light and playful” – was wonderfully dramatic, with its frequent shifts in tempo masterfully executed by the four musicians.
The program continued with String Quartet No. 1, Op. 19 by Quebecois composer Jacques Hétu, one of the most esteemed figures in modern Canadian classical music. Nowlin introduced the work, noting that it was originally written for the Orford String Quartet, setting high expectations for the piece. The Allegro, built around a canon, showcased the Quartet’s fluidity as the movement’s central melody was passed seamlessly from one player to the next. The Andante started out as smooth and lyrical, but soon built to a furious climax that left one breathless. The stunning third movement, the Vivace, was a truly thrilling demonstration of both the Quartet’s skill and Hétu’s compositional ingenuity; introduced as a scherzo, it featured ponticello, a technique involving playing close to the bridge, which creates an icy, glassy sound in the process. The concluding Allegro brought together the themes in the form of a fugue, ending with one sustained and spellbinding note. 

In the last piece of the program, Brahms’ String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51,  Crow took the lead, steering the Quartet through a multi-textured, shaded Allegro and the soothing Allegretto, which, with its simple, repetitive motif, brought to mind the lullabies Brahms is most famous for. The piece featured a more assertive cello part than those written by Haydn and Hétu, allowing for the use of some unexpected percussive effects. Manker took full advantage of the lovely, sweet Romanze poco adagio, where his strumming of the cello provided enchanting baroque-style flourishes. Following a standing ovation, the Quartet returned to the stage for a spirited rendition of the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 in E major, Op.59.

Those in the packed-to-the-rafters Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall seemed especially taken by the truly imaginative, fresh sound of the Quartet. In particular, the artists’ choice of repertoire and their use of many inventive techniques were major contributions to their captivating performance. Speaking after the concert, Nowlin noted that the quartet actively seeks to ensure that each piece “exists in its own sonic space." The ensemble’s contemporary sound is accomplished in part by the artists’ “restrained use of traditional long strokes and vibrato," an approach seen most clearly in their classical selections. The Virtuosi audience appeared to have enthusiastically approved of these stylistic choices. New Orford’s powerful and intricate sound makes one feel that the Quartet’s musical predecessors would have been equally as delighted and impressed.

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