Review: New Orford String Quartet delivers exciting concert greater than sum of its parts

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

The New Orford String Quartet rose out of the ashes of the Orford String Quartet, the legendary ensemble that dominated Canadian chamber music from 1965 until its last concert in 1991. The New Orford reignited the torch along with the name in 2009, and in the nearly 10 years since have become one of North America’s most prominent touring quartets.

The New Orford is made up of four elite orchestral players: Montreal Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Andrew Wan, Toronto Symphony Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, Detroit Symphony Principal Viola Eric Nowlin and MSO Principal Cellist Brian Manker. The quartet performed at the National Gallery Saturday night in a Chamberfest program that paired George Crumb’s Dark Angel with Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ.

It’s not uncommon for people from the same orchestra to form a quartet. What’s more unusual is for one to be composed of musicians from different orchestras. The rehearsal and scheduling logistics alone must be a major challenge. But the quality, preparation and commitment of New Orford’s ensemble playing indicates this is much more than an ad hoc side hustle for these four gentlemen.

Saturday’s program, which the quartet presented in Montreal earlier this week and which they will next take to Toronto, was pure genius. The Haydn is made up of an introduction, seven short, single-movement sonatas representing the final words uttered by Jesus on the cross, and a dramatic finale depicting the earthquake and ripping of the temple veil when Christ died, as described in the New Testament. Crumb wrote Black Angels in 1970 as a memento mori for the Vietnam War. It’s crawling with creepy, ghostly, uncomfortable effects and quotes from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and the Dies Irae plainchant. The string players also have to yell out numbers in Hungarian, German and French, and play rattles, gongs, and water glasses tuned to various pitches.

It would have been intriguing enough to play the Haydn and the Crumb in succession, with perhaps an intermission to reset in between. But New Orford took it to the next level by alternating movements from both works in a single, 90-minute concert. This integrated approach went beyond basic contrast to create a kind of metaphysical third piece, in which these wildly divergent compositions from the 18th and 20th centuries found common ground in that liminal space between the living and the dead. (All credit for this brilliant idea goes to cellist Brian Manker).

The arrangement lets New Orford show off their considerable virtuosity. Switching back and forth from the Haydn to the Crumb presented considerable mental as well as technical challenges, but the quartet delivered on all fronts. The Haydn had serenity, nobility and gravitas, expressed in limpid, light tones with minimal vibrato. But for the Crumb the quartet dug deep, creating a nightmarish soundscape of frenetic, buzzing insects, distant chimes, medieval hurdy-gurdies, and the groans of the damned. It was an extraordinarily exciting concert, one that was even greater than the sum of its masterpiece parts.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.