Hart House String Quartet
Hart House String Quartet. Canada's most famous chamber ensemble of the first half of the 20th century, and the first to be subsidized fully.
Foundation and Members
Not one of the original players was Canadian-born. The quartet's history began in 1923 when Géza de Kresz, newly arrived in Toronto, began to practise informally with the violist Milton Blackstone and the cellist Boris Hambourg (with whom he had played in a student quartet in Belgium, under Ysaÿe, ca 1905-8). On de Kresz's initiative a second violinist was sought, and Harry Adaskin was chosen to fill this role. After intensive rehearsals the group received permission from Vincent Massey to give its first concert in the Hart House Theatre (a part of the building given to the University of Toronto by the Massey Foundation). The program, before an invited audience 27 Apr 1924, comprised Haydn's Opus 76, no. 2, Beethoven's Opus 95, and the slow movement of Beethoven's Opus 74. Augustus Bridle described the playing as 'highly finished and beautiful' (Toronto Daily Star, 28 Apr 1924), while the critic for Saturday Night (3 May 1924) praised the group as 'the most promising organization of its kind that Toronto has yet produced'.
The concert's success prompted the Massey Foundation to establish the quartet on a permanent basis, guaranteeing salaries for the players while allowing them to keep any surplus from box office receipts. It was at this point that the group adopted the name Hart House String Quartet.
Blackstone (b New York 1894, d Toronto 1974), who came to Toronto in 1911, studied with Luigi von Kunits, played in the Welsman TSO and Academy String Quartet, and was the quartet's business manager until ill health forced his retirement in 1941. The original members stayed together until 1935, when de Kresz left, and James Levey (1887-1955, a concertmaster of the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and first violin, 1917-27, of the London String Quartet) took his place. Adaskin resigned in 1938 and was succeeded by Adolph Koldofsky, who was followed in 1942 by Henry Milligan. Blackstone was replaced by Allard de Ridder in 1941. Cyril Glyde replaced de Ridder in 1944. Hambourg was cellist throughout the group's history. Occasionally the quartet appeared with a guest, among them pianists Sir Ernest MacMillan, Maurice Ravel, Ernest Seitz, and singer Campbell McInnes.
Concerts and Tours
In its early years the quartet presented 10 recitals annually at Hart House and 10 more at Convocation Hall, University of Toronto. By 1938 it had undertaken 12 Canadian tours and had given some 30 concerts in New York and over 100 others throughout the USA. A European tour in 1929 included more than 45 engagements in Belgium, England (including BBC broadcasts), France, and Holland, while another trip, 1936-7, took the group first to the USA, Mexico and Cuba, and then to Austria, England, France, Holland, Italy, Scandinavia, Scotland, and the USSR. In 1925 the quartet signed a broadcast contract with the CNR and in 1927 it made a trans-Canada CNR broadcasting tour. It gave many individual radio recitals and took part in CBC broadcast series in 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1942.
The quartet's repertoire was wide-ranging, encompassing music of the classic and romantic eras and works of 20th-century composers, including Debussy, Delius, Dohnányi, Hindemith, Kodály, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, and many others. With the London and Kilbourn quartets it took part in Toronto in a Beethoven Centenary String Quartet Festival (13 Oct 1926-3 Feb 1927) and during the 1934-5 season it performed the late Beethoven quartets in Toronto and Buffalo. It gave the first Canadian performance (25 Oct 1925) of Bartók's Quartet No. 1 and performed the Ravel Quartet in New York, 15 Jan 1928, at the concert in which Ravel made his US debut as a pianist. Later it appeared at concerts featuring Ravel in Albany, NY, and Toronto. It performed several Canadian works and premiered Ernest MacMillan's String Quartet in C Minor 8 Feb 1925 and his Two Sketches for String Quartet in 1927, Leo Smith's arrangements of Dans Paris y a-t-une brune and J'ai cueilli la belle rose in 1927, and George Bowles' String Quartet in 1928. The quartet's last regular concerts took place at Hart House, 12, 13, and 15 Jun 1945.
The following year three special farewell concerts were given before invited audiences and were broadcast by the CBC. The last of these, at Hart House 26 Apr 1946, with Koldofsky (substituting for Levey who was ill) and Milligan as first and second violins, featured music by Vaughan Williams and Sir John McEwen and a short address by Boris Hambourg. A tape of this concert has been deposited at the National Library of Canada (now LAC).
The ensemble made recordings on the Victor Label, many of which may be found at LAC. Mozart-Beethoven, arr de Kresz 'Variations on ''La ci darem''' from Don Giovanni may be heard through the Virtual Gramophone website.
From the outset the quality of the quartet's playing was acknowledged to be high. In 1925, a critic for the New York Herald Tribune (29 Nov 1925) wrote that 'the four players seemed to have attained a thorough unity in spirit as well as execution and their playing was sensitive and expressive as well as skilled'. The group became one of the dozen or so best on the international scene. Despite personnel changes, it maintained the standards of its early years. A Globe and Mail review of 24 Oct 1938 discussed its 'almost absolute perfection in blend, balance, precision, style, jewelled workmanship, masterly interpretation... silken texture and ravishing beauty of tone' and as late as 1944 the members were described as 'great artists, individual and collective' (Toronto Telegram, 27 Nov 1944).