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Classical Music 101: A guide to the subtler charms of a string orchestra in a noisy age

By John Terauds on August 5, 2013


A visit to Bob Shingleton’s excellent blog, On an Overgrown Path, has inspired a little ode to the charms of the string orchestra, a deceptively simple-seeming collection of violins, violas, cellos and double-basses.

Shingleton, who wrote yesterday about a number of notable album reissues of music for strings, opened his blog post with these words by Herbert Howells, spoken during a 1943 interview on the BBC:

Sonority it is – sonority without noise – which is the greatest abiding power of the string medium. In a world of sounding brass and tinkling cymbal and of noise magnified to the nth degree, this is it – sonority without noise – that marks the supreme contribution made by string music to the fund of our musical enchantment.

It’s so true — from the solo partita all the way to the full-blown string symphony.

The majority of modern symphony orchestras are contractually set up in such a way that most of the musicians have to be working most of the time, making it impractical to program music for winds, or plunge into the deep well of large-scale music for strings only.

There are string orchestras around — like our own very fine Sinfonia Toronto — but they represent a tiny sliver of the art-music cake.

And it’s not easy to just get a bunch of string players together for fun to go through this repertoire. As those of us who have ventured out to hear Euphonia, Toronto’s newest orchestral ensemble, in their casual Lula Lounge digs, it takes a lot of collaboration and rehearsal for strings to reach a point where their sonority can satisfy the most demanding ears.

Their next concert is on Aug. 12, and I’m looking forward to checking in on their progress.

Because it’s a holiday Monday, I thought I’d create a sort of listener’s timeline of string symphonies with some fine tonal pieces we don’t hear often:


Georg Philip Telemann (1681-1767) is always good for some creative compositional ideas. Here is a his “Polish” String Concerto, beautifully played by the period-instrument English Concert, led by Trevor Pinnock. This isn’t a pure string piece, as there is harpsichord continuo throughout, but it’s an exciting, compact creation:


The most famous piece of Western music for string orchestra has to be Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a.k.a. Serenade for Strings in G Major, K525. Instead of that piece, let’s listen to a work from Mozart’s early years, the Serenade No. 6, K239, played in early 20th century style, in this 1935 recording with a Toronto connection, featuring the Boyd Neel String Orchestra.

Neel (1905-1981), a native Londoner, became dean of what is now the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1951. He founded the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra as well as the Hart House Orchestra.


Baroque echoes abound in the dramatic 1823 G minor Symphony No. 12 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Mendelssohn worked hard to reintroduce the music of J.S. Bach to a world that had nearly forgotten him, and you can hear the love clearly — from the pen of a 14-year old.

Here is a nice interpretation by the Northern Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Ward:


There’s a lot of choice here. One of my favourites is Edward Elgar’s Op. 20 Serenade for Strings in E minor, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Barry Wordsworth (the opening piece is the Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, Op. 47). Elgar wrote the Serenade in 1892, the Introduction and Allegro is from 1905.


There not only is a lot of choice, the choices cover a wide range of styles, from deeply conservative tonal writing to the wildly adventurous. I’ve left the truly adventurous stuff for another time:

Germany: Erich Korngold (1897-1957) wrote a gorgeous Symphonic Serenade after the war, and after he tried to wrestle free from his Hollywood associations. The work mixes his way with a violin with remarkable compositional craft. Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic gave its premiere in 1950.

The third movement is achingly beautiful. The finale starts with an insane fugue. Here are all four movements, performed by the Northwest German Philharmonic under Werner Andreas Albert:

Canada: Toronto’s iconic pre-modern composer, Healey Willan (1880-1968), expanded some music for string quartet into his 1959 Poem for Strings. Here it is, performed by two great, now-defunct Canadian institutions, the CBC Vancouver Orchestra and its music director, Mario Bernardi:

Soviet Union: Toronto Sinfornia music director Raffi Armenian has championed the work of Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian (1920-2012), who wrote in the conservative, tonal style designed to keep him in good stead with musical meddlers in the Politburo. Here are the Torontonians giving the first, second and fourth movements of an Arutunian Sinfonietta their due at Grace Church-on-the-Hill:

Britain: Kenneth Leighton’s 1961 Concerto for String Orchestra was premiered at Wigmore Hall the following year. (You can find out a lot about this underrated composer, who died in 1988, at the site of the Kenneth Leighton Trust at the University of Edinburgh, here.) The piece is performed here by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales led by the late Richard Hickox:

United States: Here is Philip Glass’s Company, written 30 years ago, performed by hip ensemble The Knights in New York City four years ago:


I’ll stick to Canada for a couple of easy-listening choices.

Here is Kingston-based composer Marjan Mozetich’s Dance to Earth, performed in Dec. 2010 at the Glenn Gould Studio by Sinfonia Toronto:

And, representing the latest generation of Canadian composers, this is Kevin Lau’s Joy, performed nearly two years ago at Walter Hall by violinist Conrad Chow and the Sneak Peek Strings conducted by Victor Cheng:

John Terauds

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