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There are string quartets aligned with symphony orchestras and others aligned with universities and music schools; however, the New Orford String Quartet is unique in that it is made up of principal chair players from three different orchestras in three different cities hundreds of miles apart. Last night at a sold-out Walter Hall, the quartet teamed up with pia,nist Pedja Muzijevic to present an inspired program of the music of Debussy, Beethoven and Elgar as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Jonathan Crow, concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony; Andrew Wan, concert master of the Montreal Symphony; Eric Nowlin principal violist of the Detroit Symphony and Brian Manker principal cellist of the Montreal Symphony make time to appear regularly together despite hectic symphonic schedules. 

Muzejevic is not new to Toronto Summer Music Festival audiences. He was last heard two summers ago when he gave a solo recital. His thoughtful juxtaposition of Haydn sonatas along with contemporary composers like John Cage and Oliver Knussen impressed the audience with his thoughtful approach to the music. An audience member at the time remarked, “Every phrase mattered”. Another added, “His music sparkled with clarity and humour”. Muzejevic, from Bosnia originally, is both a  solo performer and collaborative artist known “for his understated elegance, wit and joyfulness”.

The evening began with Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, performed by Manker and Muzijevic. Debussy wrote this work, one of his last, in 1915. It differs from the rest of his output in adhering to a classical form, and also in stylistic details. The piece, especially the second movement, could be called pointillistic. Manker played masterfully, keeping his intonation accurate even in the high range of the instrument. Muzijevic imitated his pizzicatos. Pianists usually focus on how they touch or attack the notes, and often forget to think about the release. Muzijevic, like Gould, was very deliberate in his releases, and this presented the pointillistic texture optimally.

If there are those who “recoil at the raw power and intensity” of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 “Serioso, as suggested in the program notes, they got a full dose of raw power by the New Orford String Quartet. The opening notes jumped off the page and off the bows with ferocity. Within a brief moment, the first of many sudden contrasts came over the music and we were listening to some of the most sublime music imaginable. The second movement came close to heavenly tranquillity. In the final two movements, the intensity sustained unremittingly. Despite being the shortest of Beethoven’s quartets, it didn’t lack for emotion. The NOSQ was in peak form. It has become a jewel among the myriad of outstanding quartets.

The final work of the evening was Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor, an intriguing and rousing ending. Written at the end of the first world war, it features a Spanish theme in the first movement, perhaps connected to the strange story of the destruction of a Spanish monastic community in England, and the transmigration of the dead monks into barkless, leafless trees. Parts of the work sound like chamber music by Brahms. The dynamic and textural scale of the quintet is very large.

Once again Muzijevic adopted a style of playing that imitated string pizzicatos. As the first movement neared its end, Crow’s E string broke and, nimbly, he exchanged instruments with Wan and kept playing—impressive! The ensemble played together very accurately, sometimes performing softly, sometimes sounding like a small symphony orchestra. The performance was beautifully executed, capping off a terrific musical evening.

Inspired performances by the New Orford String Quartet and pianist Pedja Muzijevic at Toronto Summer Music Festival!

​​Review by Paul Merkley FFRSC and David Richards

Toronto ON July 28th 2018

New Orford String Quartet; Photo credit: Catherine Willshire