New Orford String Quartet opens Winter Chamber Music Festival with impressive new work

Sat Jan 10, 2015 at 12:27 pm

By Michael Cameron

The New Orford String Quartet opened the Winter Chamber Music Festival Friday night at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. Photo: Alain Lefort
The New Orford String Quartet opened the Winter Chamber Music Festival Friday night at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. Photo: Alain Lefort

A few decades ago one could count the number of touring string quartets on one hand. These days one needs at least that many digits to tally the new ensembles that enter the musical fray every year. Even with modestly increased appetite among the classical music faithful, the supply has outstripped the demand, and emerging quartets nearly always need steadier gigs at home to pay the rent.

Most young American quartets accomplish this feat with academic residencies, but the members of the New Orford String Quartet depend on positions as principal players in Canadian orchestras for their livelihood. The wrinkle is that these appointments (in Montreal and Toronto) keep them hundreds of miles apart for much of the year.

Given these geographical and time constraints, the musicians (violinists Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, violist Eric Nolin, and cellist  Brian Manker) could be forgiven if their readings were less polished than some of their elders in the string quartet firmament. Yet polish was the most noteworthy of many fine attributes on display at their concert Friday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, which opened the Winter Chamber Music Festival at the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music in Evanston.

It took some serious chutzpah to feature the last quartets of Beethoven and Schubert in their highly regarded debut disc in 2012, given the general assumption that these towering masterpieces need years of study before they give up their secrets. The quartet choose another thorny work for top open their Midwest debut Friday, Beethoven’s Op. 11 in F minor (“Serioso”), reflecting the festival’s emphasis on the master’s chamber music for this year’s series.

Their reading neatly vanquished the quartet’s many potential perils, with well gauged tempos, nearly flawless balance, and a keen grasp of the work’s dizzying mood swings. There were moments when a sharper edge might have underscored the hairpin turns more decisively, but overall it was a spirited and riveting performance.

A similarly compelling, if somewhat cautious approach served them well in Brahms’ String Quartet No. 1 in C minor. Lyrical phrases were spun with captivating beauty, though some were severely tapered to near inaudibility. If there were times when heftier weight might have boosted the dramatic profile, their quiet passages were ravishing, especially in an intoxicating reading of the sublime second movement.

With so much worthy competition in their field, the quartet realizes the value in novelty, a difficult trick to pull off in a musical arena that so treasures a sacred canon. Like many of their programs, this one sandwiched a new work by a Canadian composer between two standards.

Gary Kulesha’s music isn’t well known south of the border, an unfortunate state of affairs if his new String Quartet is a representative example of his substantial oeuvre. It’s not unusual for composers to delay embracing the string quartet genre, given the intimidating size and quality of the existing repertoire, but Kulesha’s first effort at age 60 sets a new benchmark for procrastination. While the ink is barely dry on this engaging work (the world premiere occurred three days ago in Toronto), the foursome made a strong case for what deserves to be a notable entry in the repertoire.

The work’s division into four movements is but one of many nods to classical traditions, and the composer’s language reflects a kinship to a variety of sources from the early to mid 20th century. Introductory comments suggested a relationship with the other two quartets on the program, though any direct quotes were hard to discern at first hearing.

The form of the first movement itself also draws on classical precedents, with recognizable and recurring themes and a dramatic, nearly orchestral sweep that hints at the quartets of Brahms and Bartok. Kulesha employs quarter tones on a fairly regular basis, but not at the kind of saturation level that can make conservative audiences squirm. They are used either as an expressive ornament (in the manner of blues or klezmer musicians) or as a way to flesh out chromatic scales. This latter notion becomes something of a signature motive for the quartet as a whole, lending a piquant kick that sets the work apart from its more obvious precedents.

The second movement finds the composer more concerned with color and texture, with mutes and pizzicatos featured prominently and extended solo passages exchanged among the players. The third movement pays homage to the traditional scherzo with pattering ostinatos, often in unison or octaves, while the finale links ideas from the three earlier movements, leading to a pair of unison stabs for the finale gesture.

The quartet took to their task with boundless energy and unflappable commitment, and one can only hope that new commissions continue to play a role in their burgeoning career. Kudos to the festival for nabbing this fine foursome for their opening concert. Now it’s up to other Chicago presenters to book a follow-up engagement, hopefully soon.

The Winter Chamber Music Festival continues at Pick-Staiger Hall through January 25.; 773-702-2787.

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