Chamberfest: The New Orford String Quartet carries a tradition forward

New Orford String Quartet: Brian Manker, Andrew Wan, Jonathan Crow, Eric Nowlin. Photo: Sian Richards

What would happen if you took two pieces of music separated by more than 180 years and shuffled the various movements together into one continuous deck?

You’ll find out Saturday night when the New Orford String Quartet does just that at the National Gallery with Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ ( written in 1786) and George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970).

It’s certainly different. But, Jonathan Crow says, it is totally consistent with the driving principle that underpins this ensemble.

Crow, who is also the concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, is one of the four players, all of whom are principals in their home orchestras. The other members are Andrew Wan, concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Brian Manker, principal cello with the MSO and Eric Nowlin, principal violist with the Detroit Symphony. With two of the players are in Montreal, Crow is resident in Toronto and Nowlin is in Detroit. In a way they are connected by Highway 401. But they get together, most often, on the road, on tour.

“We were looking at a way to tie Haydn in concert format,” Crow said. “It is performed a lot at Easter, but not much any other time of the year.

“We thought ‘This is beautiful music. We have to find a way to play it.’

“The piece does feature nine movements that are similar. Putting it together with the Crumb means taking two pieces that were written with idea of ritual in mind.”

Both composers were very specific about the atmosphere surrounding the playing of these pieces, Crow said.

“We thought that maybe we could mix and match them, stick it in front of people and say this is 180 some years of quartet writing here and show the differences” and the similarities.

“The more we looked, the more we realized there were connections in the way the composers thought about putting pieces together.”

The quartet will be performing this work for the first time in Montreal just before the Chamberfest concert in Ottawa.

This presentation is typical of the New Orfords.

“From our foundation, we decided that we want to mix and match great music and music that we really believe in. Our first concert featured Haydn’s Op. 20 No. 4 and Beethoven’s Opus 132 also with Sir Ernest MacMillan‘s String Quartet.

“The idea being that we shouldn’t need to play only modern music in modern settings and standard music in standard settings. It’s all great music. We try to put things together in a way that pieces can stand up for each other.

New work, for the New Orfords, gets the brain going, Crow said.

“New music makes connections to older works stronger.” He says that the Chamberfest certainly does that.

“(As a festival) it punches way above its weight.”

The New Orford String Quartet was formed almost a decade ago when the director of the Orford Arts Centre, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, asked Crow to put together  a quartet that would be in residence at the centre.

He pulled together Wan, who had succeeded Crow as concertmaster at the MSO, Manker and Nowlin, who was a classmate of Wan’s at Juilliard.

The fellows got together to find a name.

“We thought about what names might make sense.”

The connection to the original Orford String Quartet, a legendary ensemble, was obvious.

“We were not the Orford, but at the same time we wanted the connection to the centre to be clear.”

They knew all the original members so they gave them a call and got an enthusiastic thumbs up.

“We have never intended to take over their fame. In a way the name is a tribute to them and everything they brought to Canadian quartet music.

“We all owe so much to them for making it so you can be a Canadian string quartet and have a career and can play Canadian music and represent that around the world.

“A couple of years ago, we were playing Beethoven Op. 59, No. 3. at Orford. They had video screens outside the hall with the original Orfords playing the piece. We went into rehearsal and passed by this. It sounded so great. We thought we had better go practice.

“Their playing was so clean and exciting and amazing. It was nice to have that and be reminded of what can be and what is.”

Despite the presence of so many leaders in the ensemble, Crow says the four work towards consensus all the time.

“We get along great. Andrew and I are usually fighting over who gets to play second violin because it’s more relaxing for us.”

In orchestras, there are times when decisions must be taken. But in a chamber group “there is time for discussion and at the end of the day you hope you are reaching the best possible consensus.”

Chamberfest present the New Orford String Quartet
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.