Orford String Quartet | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Orford String Quartet

Orford String Quartet. Distinguished Canadian string quartet founded at the Jeunesses Musicales of Canada's Orford Arts Centre in June 1965 and active until July 1991.

Formation and Members

In its formative years the quartet was encouraged by Gilles Lefebvre and coached by Lorand Fenyves. The original members were Andrew Dawes (first violin), Kenneth (John) Perkins (second violin; b Brockville, Ont, 8 Jul 1935, d 3 Aug 2000; a pupil of Ivan Galamian and Fenyves and a former member of the MSO), Terence Helmer (viola; b Kirkland Lake, Ont, 18 Jul 1940, a pupil of Géza de Kresz, Kathleen Parlow, Joseph Gingold, and Arthur Grumiaux), and Marcel Saint-Cyr (cello). Saint-Cyr was succeeded in 1980 by Denis Brott. Brott left the quartet on short notice in October 1988 and was succeeded by Desmond Hoebig. (Paul Pulford substituted on occasion until Hoebig was able to join the ensemble full time in 1989). Helmer was succeeded by the US violist Robert Levine in 1986, and Levine was in turn succeeded by the English violist Sophie Renshaw (b 1965; a pupil of Hans Keller and Donald McInnes) in 1987.

The quartet gave its first concert (Haydn String Quartet, Opus 76, no. 2; Prokofiev String Quartet No. 2, Opus 92, and Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 1, Opus 12) at the Orford Art Centre 11 Aug 1965. At the time of this quiet yet momentous debut the Canadian String Quartet and the Montreal String Quartet had disbanded and the way was open for a young and dedicated group to maintain the tradition. The Orford Quartet moved to Toronto in the fall of 1965 and in the following two years toured Canada, France, and Austria for the JM. This early period of the quartet's career culminated in a critically acclaimed Carnegie Recital Hall debut 22 Nov 1967.


In 1968 the Orford String Quartet began a long association with the University of Toronto; the members held teaching appointments there beginning in 1972. The ensemble was referred to as the quartet-in-residence at the university beginning in 1968, but did not officially receive that designation until 1982. The quartet also gave master classes and concerts in various music camps (including the Orford Arts Centre), and it served 1971-4 as the faculty at the Kelso Music Centre (near Oakville, Ont). As part of a national residency program 1988-9, funded in part by the Canada Council, the quartet trained young musicians and ensembles at universities and conservatories across Canada. One of the groups it coached in this program was the Quatuor Arthur-LeBlanc at the University of Moncton.

Concerts and Tours

The Orford String Quartet performed throughout North America, and with the support of the Canada Council or the Dept of External Affairs toured many times in Europe, including the former USSR. It also toured Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong in 1983 and South America in 1987. It performed at Expo 67, at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, at the Musicanada festival in London 15 Nov 1977, in Appledoorn, Holland 6 May 1990 to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands, at Carnegie Recital Hall 16 Nov 1990 during its centennial season, at Rideau Hall 9 Dec 1990, and at the Great Canada '91 festival in Tokyo in July 1991.

Reception and Awards

Critical reaction to the ensemble was consistently enthusiastic. The ensemble shared first prize in the European Broadcasting Union's String Quartet Competition in 1974. It was awarded the 1975 Molson Prize and received the Canadian Music Council Award in 1978 for the best Canadian chamber music recording (for Mendelssohn Quartets No. 1 and 2). It also received the CMCouncil's Grand prix du disque in 1981 (for its recording of quartets by Beckwith and Schafer) and in 1983 (for its Beethoven cycle on CBC records), and it was named ensemble of the year by the CMCouncil in 1986. Its recordings won three Juno Awards for best classical album (solo or chamber ensemble): in 1985 (for four of the Mozart quartets), in 1987 (for the Schubert Quintet with Ofra Harnoy), and in 1991 (for the five Schafer quartets; No. 5 also won a Juno Award for best classical composition).

Repertoire and Premieres

The repertoire of the Orford Quartet was impressively broad; it played more than 180 works from the classical to contemporary eras for quartet alone or quartet with other forces. The ensemble performed a cycle of the complete Beethoven quartets for the first time in Toronto and Ottawa in 1977; the cycle was repeated on many other occasions in subsequent years in North America and Europe. In addition to the traditional repertoire, it played many 20th-century works by US and European composers and over 40 compositions (many commissioned) by some 30 Canadian composers.

Works that it premiered included string quartets by Bauer (The Final Silence), Beckwith (Quartet and College Airs), Brian Cherney (No. 1), Dolin (Portrait), Fleming (Quartet), Glick (No. 1), Heard (Prelude), Hétu (Opus 19), Morawetz (Five Fantasies and Tribute to W.A. Mozart), Mozetich (Changes), Papineau-Couture (No. 2), Prévost (Suite), and Wilson (No. 3), and works for quartet and other forces by Allan Bell (Quintet for Strings), Alfred Fisher (Diary of a War Artist), André Gagnon (Four Tangos), Louie (Music from Night's Edge), Morel (Paysage dépaysé), Prévost (Ahimsâ), and Zamfir (Quintet), among others. The quartet enjoyed an especially close relationship with Schafer; it premiered two of his string quartets (No. 3 and 5), his Beauty and the Beast for voice and string quartet (with Maureen Forrester), and his Theseus for harp and string quartet (with Judy Loman), and it performed his String Quartet No. 1 over 100 times. The ensemble's penultimate concert (27 Jul 1991 for Music at Sharon) was devoted to the five Schafer quartets.


The Orford String Quartet was widely praised for its fluent and elegant style, for its understated but beautiful collective sound, and for its refined musicianship in a wide variety of repertoire. Although the quality of playing fluctuated in later years with the changing personnel, it never fell below a very high professional standard. The group's 26-year career made it one of Canada's longest-lived as well as most illustrious chamber ensembles. The final concert of the quartet (28 Jul 1991 for Music at Sharon), a repeat of the program of its first concert, marked the end of an era in Canadian chamber music performance. The proceeds from this event were used to establish the Orford String Quartet Scholarship for the encouragement of string playing and string quartet ensembles in Canada. The Orford String Quartet fonds are found at LAC.

Recordings and Collaborations

The Orford String Quartet has recorded for CBC, Delus, RCA Red Seal, CMCentrediscs, Skylark, ProArte and others. Among collaborating guest artists have been Lois Marshall, Anton Kuerti, Ofra Harnoy, Jane Coop, Ronald Turini to name a few.

In 2009 the "new" Orford String quartet was formed by Jonathan Crow, Andrew Wan (violins), Eric Nowlin viola and Brian Maniker cello, all first desks players from the Toronto and Montreal Symphony orchestras. They gave their first concert at the Orford Arts Centre that year to acclaim and have been continuing the tradition of their namesake.

Suggested Readings

Helmer, Paul, Growing with Canada: the Emigré Tradition in Canadian Music (2009); Legge, Valerie J., One Quarter of the Orford String Quartet: Marcel Saint- Cyr (2009)