On a bitter winter evening seven years ago, members of the Orford String Quartet landed in the mining community of Leaf Rapids, Man. (population 2,067), a three-hour flight north of Winnipeg, a few hours before they were to give a concert there. Finding that the airport lounge was closed, they huddled in an unheated shelter and telephoned for a taxi. “We were petrified that the instruments would crack,” recalled second violinist Kenneth Perkins. The only cabdriver they managed to contact refused to rush over—he was in the middle of his dinner. But he did show up eventually, and the four musicians, as well as their instruments, arrived chilled but otherwise unharmed at the local town centre in time for their recital. In its 26year existence, the Toronto-based Orford ensemble has received rave reviews in London, New York City and scores of other communities around the world—including Leaf Rapids. But on July 27 and 28 in Sharon, Ont.—a community 55 km north of Toronto that holds an annual music festival—the celebrated quartet will give its final performances.
The Orford, which has just returned from an engagement at the new Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, is without question Canada’s pre-emi-
nent string quartet. Renowned for its expressive, finely nuanced playing, the group has given thousands of performances and made more than 50 recordings. Among its most impressive achievements was winning first prize in the European Broadcasting Union’s international string quartet competition, held in Stockholm in 1974. In its own country, the Orford has received three Juno Awards. But first-rate quartets are inherently fragile: they cannot exist unless four exceptional musicians are committed to forging a single entity. Indeed, of the Orford’s original members, only Perkins, 56, and first violinist Andrew Dawes, 51, remain. And when Dawes announced last year that he would leave the group at the end of the 1990-1991 season to pursue other interests, the others decided to disband rather than replace him. Said 26-year-old Orford violist Sophie Renshaw: “We had different ideas about what we wanted to see the quartet do, so we decided that it was time to move on.”
The Orford began in 1965, the year of Renshaw’s birth. Its original members— Dawes, Perkins, violist Terence Helmer and cellist Marcel St-Cyr, all of them Canadianborn—gave their first performances at the Orford Arts Centre in Mont-Orford, Que., 100
km east of Montreal. Soon afterward, Toronto became the group’s home base. In 1967, its members won impressive reviews for a debut performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, marking the beginning of an illustrious international career for the group. The Los Angeles Times predicted in 1983 that the Orford would become “our next super-quartet.” And four years later, The New York Times praised the Orford’s “uncommon musical sensibilities and dynamism,” adding that the group’s Beethoven quartet recordings possessed equal measures of “elegance and delicacy” and “unbridled exuberance.”
But the Orford’s success in the the 1980s was tempered by the upheaval of personnel changes. In 1980, St-Cyr left to pursue an interest in early music and Montreal-born cellist Denis Brott took his place. Robert Levine succeeded violist Helmer in 1986 but resigned a year later; the British-born Renshaw, then only 22, replaced him. And when Brott left the group in 1988, the current Orford cellist, Vancouver-born Desmond Hoebig, now 29, assumed the post.
A small musical group’s fortunes nearly always take, as Hoebig describes it, “a bit of a dip” when a new member joins: promoters are less likely to book groups until they are sure that the ensemble has retained its quality. With all of the Orford’s arrivals and departures in recent years, the group’s international bookings have fallen off, and the quartet was in the midst of a rebuilding period when it decided to disband.
The group also suffered setbacks with recording companies. The Orford has recorded extensively on Canadian classical record labels, but those companies lack the reach for effective international distribution. In the mid1980s, the Orford appeared to have overcome that problem when it signed a contract with the Los Angeles-based Delos label to record the 16 Beethoven string quartets. Five of the series’ eight projected compact discs were released and earned spectacular reviews—but in 1989, Delos went into receivership. The three recordings that would have completed the set were made, but have never been issued.
Soon, those misfortunes, along with the group’s achievements, will belong to the past. After their final performances in the Music at Sharon festival, the group’s members will turn to various activities. Dawes and Perkins say that they would like to do more solo playing and teaching; Hoebig is moving to Texas to join the Houston Symphony Orchestra as its principal cellist; Renshaw is returning to Britain briefly before setting out on a trip to Southeast Asia, where she plans to learn more about Indonesian music.
Still, the four musicians say that they retain an intense affinity for string quartet playing. “When I hear a quartet and they’re playing well,” said Dawes, “there’s something about that interaction and the intertwining of the voices that is more appealing to me than anything else.” Many who have listened to the Orford have felt the same way.
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