The Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival kicked off its 21st season Sunday night with a performance by the up-and-coming Canadian group, the New Orford String Quartet, at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. Comprising leading players from the Toronto, Montreal and Detroit Symphony Orchestras, the New Orford Quartet has been garnering recognition and building an impressive resume since its formation in 2009. Sunday’s performance, its second appearance at the festival, demonstrated that this young group has a bright future, even if it still has things to learn.
This quartet does things differently, such as seating cellist Brian Manker where violist Eric Nowlin would normally sit, and vice versa. Violinists Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow also switch chairs for each work, a practice shared by few other quartets. The New Orford Quartet builds audience rapport by explaining each piece before performing it. On Sunday night they demonstrated a mastery of the fundamentals with tight ensemble playing and a wide dynamic range.
The concert opened with Les Veuves (The Windows), a moody work by Canadian clarinetist and composer Uriel Vanchestein commissioned for the New Orford Quartet. It was inspired by a poem by Quebec native Richard Desjardins, which tells a sorrowful tale of clear-cut logging in ancestral lands of native American people, one of whom gets revenge on the loggers.
Les Veuves begins with quiet, scratching tremolos on the violins and viola, which accompany a cello played very wistfully by Manker, that enters after a few moments. The New Orford gave it a subdued but ominous feel. As the work progressed, tension built as the various themes were passed among the players. Noteworthy is the percussive use of bows, representing the sound of axes on trees.
The New Orford Quartet shone in the next work, Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in g-minor, op. 10. While Debussy is most known for solo piano pieces, such as Clare de Lune, and orchestral works, such as La Mer, he did write a handful of memorable chamber works, most notably this string quartet, an early work that many regard as the first truly modern work of the form. Written in his impressionistic style, Debussy used ancient tonalities and moody textures to give the work an airy, ethereal feel, reminiscent of the impressionist art movement pioneered by fellow French artists 20 years earlier.
Combining their tight, note-perfect playing with remarkable intonation, the New Orford gave the best performance I have ever heard of this piece. It started with their thoughtful but firm grasp of the opening flourish of chords, which most performers play rather brusquely. The New Orford’s more careful treatment allowed them greater leeway in handling these chords when they reappeared in various other forms and contexts throughout the work. Playing the opening chords with greater care did not detract from the contrast required in delicate passages that follow. The New Orford demonstrated amazing tenderness in the slow third movement, which they played very softly, while still preserving their tight interactions.
After the intermission, the New Orford attempted to climb one of music’s loftiest of peaks, a late string quartet by Beethoven, whose music generally falls into three periods. In the early period, while experimenting, he generally stuck to the classical models pioneered by Haydn and Mozart. In his middle period, Beethoven revolutionized the classical forms in ways that gave him wider expressive freedom, which he used to create music of previously unheard of length, intensity, passion and excitement. In the late period, Beethoven’s music found ever greater levels of expression, with the traditional classical construct sometimes bent beyond recognition and archaic musical forms and tonalities reintroduced.
The last four years of Beethoven’s life were devoted to five string quartets that represent the pinnacle artistic achievements in the form. These works can be difficult for both the players and the audience, but, when well performed, they create an air of mystique and satisfaction that a well-initiated listener can find in no other compositions by any other composer from any other age.
The New Orford Quartet performed the first of these works, String Quartet in E-flat major, op. 127, with the same precision, tight ensemble playing, and clear intonation on display earlier in the evening. What was missing, however, was some of the passion that can be extracted from this special music.
Part of the challenge in the first movement was tempo, which was a little fast, especially the majestic chords that open the work and are twice revisited later in the movement. The allegro that follows, if played carefully with slight tempo variations, can be very dreamy and circumspect, but this performance seemed a bit rote and felt like a read-through. The second movement is a wonderful set of slow variations, the best set Beethoven ever wrote. A great performance absolutely oozes with feeling, and the New Orford Quartet came very close, but they still seemed to be holding something back.
Things came together in a finale comprising a brief melody that seems to have a note out of place, but which Beethoven puts to right in the lyrical passage that follows. Contrast is provided by sunny, march-like chords, reversing the order of the first movement. While these building blocks feel rather light-hearted initially, Beethoven combines them in ways that result in a dramatic conclusion. The New Orford Quartet found the emotions necessary to recreate this build-up of tension. Their ensemble sense came out in several passages, especially the end, where first violinist Andrew Wan soared above the other players.
The encore was a real treat. Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, op. 130, is a six-movement work. The New Orford performed the fifth movement, a slow, mournful lament that Beethoven labeled Cavatina. This piece demands quiet devotion, and the quartet provided it very convincingly.
While Sunday night’s performance of Beethoven’s op. 127 might not have been the best, the New Orford Quartet demonstrated that they have the fundamental tools needed to create magic. After a little more time and study, they’ll find the approach needed to make late Beethoven truly memorable.
The Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival has performances in Evanston at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall every Friday and Sunday evening through the end of January. Up next is a special treat: the Kalichstein, Laredo and Robinson Trio play Zwilich, Shostakovich and Brahms on Friday, January 13, at 7:30 pm. For more information, check out Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival.