Canadian string quartet opens Winter Chamber Music Festival, premieres new work

Rachel Davison, Reporter

The Orford String Quartet, well-known in Canada for performing and teaching in the summer at the Orford Arts Centre, disbanded in 1991. But, in July of 2009, Jonathan Crow, Andrew Wan, Eric Nowlin and Brian Manker performed together at the Orford Arts Centre, rehearsing as the New Orford String Quartet for the first time a week before the performance.

More than five years later, the New Orford String Quartet is making its Chicago-area debut Friday, as they perform the opening concert of the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

New Orford is excited to open this weekend’s festival on the campus of a school with “a history of developing top-level talent,” said Andrew Wan, violinist and Montreal Symphony Orchestra concertmaster.

The opening night program includes quartets by Beethoven and Brahms, in addition to a newly commissioned piece by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha. The quartet performed the world premiere of Kulesha’s new piece on Tuesday in Toronto, and Friday’s performance is the U.S. premiere.

The New Orford String Quartet prioritizes playing Canadian music and promoting new Canadian composers.

“We’re a group that has a Canadian identity and feels strongly about promoting Canadian artists and Canadian works and bringing them out onto the concert stage,” said violist Eric Nowlin, also the associate principal viola of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The festival’s varied program has new work in between the works by Beethoven and Brahms, both of whom inspired Kulesha in his composition.

“There’s not a lot of groups that try to integrate new music into regular programs. We know that some people won’t like the Kulesha,” said violinist Jonathan Crow, concertmaster at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. “They still have the Beethoven and Brahms. It’s our job in a way to open their ears.”

New Orford is also unique in that the violin seating varies by work, and all four members have full-time titled positions in symphony orchestras.

“We don’t have the luxury of working together eight hours a day every day,” Wan said. “If you do something over and over again it becomes habitual and loses the spark. I think that’s what we would lose if we didn’t have our particular set up.”

When Crow brought the group together, no one knew what the original performance would lead to, with their jobs limiting their schedules. Wan and Manker were the concertmaster and principal cellist, respectively, of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, while Wan and Nowlin knew each other from studying at Julliard. They were all in Canada, since Nowlin had moved from the United States.

“It was a bit of gamble,” Nowlin said. “As luck would have it, we got along quite well and had a lot of shared musical thoughts so we had a great time and played the concerts and had the discussion of now what,” he added.

The original Orford String Quartet gave them permission to use their name and in their first year together, New Orford performed one concert. The original quartet members continue to support the quartet and share advice with New Orford’s members.

“It’s interesting to meet these guys and know they’re the former incarnation of the group you’re playing with,” Nowlin said. “Our job is made much easier by having their name incorporated in our group name. That’s been a benefit for us to continue that legacy.”

Blair Milton, music director of the Winter Chamber Music Festival, had heard of the new quartet’s formation and was later impressed by their recordings.

“I wanted to give them an opportunity to play in our series and for our audience to hear them,” Milton said.

New Orford hopes to continue performing at new venues in new places.

“We decided to keep going and see where this went and five and a half years later here we are,” Nowlin said.

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