A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 26, 2012
07:51 AM
Classically Speaking

Pro Arte Finale: Echoes of a World Premiere

Pro Arte Finale: Echoes of a World Premiere

I had known for over a year that the concluding concert of the Pro Arte Quartet’s historic centennial season would take place on April 21. I also knew that it fell on my wedding anniversary.

With multiple reminders, for more than twelve months, to my patient spouse of the impending conflict, one of her gifts to me was a quiet acquiescence (with no visible bitterness), to my attending the event.

My last-minute gift to her was to tell her less than three hours before the first bow stroke that I was skipping the concert.

Lest I appear some sort of hybrid between romantic idealist and musical martyr, let me hasten to add there was some method to this madness: the Pro Arte Quartet was scheduled to reprise two-thirds of the concert on Sunday afternoon, on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Live from the Chazen.”

While it felt good to act the hero at home, it was a shame to miss what had been Saturday’s opening work, the Op. 54, No. 2 Quartet of Haydn: the Pro Arte of the 1920s and 1930s made groundbreaking early recordings of many of the Haydn quartets, and the repertoire remains a favorite of the group today.

Instead I found myself treated to the second performance of the String Quartet No. 5 of John Harbison. It is possible that, with the twenty-plus seasons of the Token Creek Chamber Festival, some local fans still might not realize Harbison’s wider impact. By way of brief reminder, his accomplishments include a Metropolitan Opera premiere, The Great Gatsby, and just this season had his Symphony No. 6 premiered by the Boston Symphony, which included all of his symphonies in their programs of the last two seasons, and recorded them.

All of Harbison’s previous quartets were composed for other illustrious ensembles of our time (e.g Cleveland Quartet, Emerson Quartet). One of my first impressions of his latest opus was that it does not reveal its treasures as readily as the centennial season’s previous premieres by Walter Mays, Paul Schoenfield and William Bolcom.

Cast in ten continuous movements and lasting about twenty-five minutes, the work is serious but not dark, touching at times but not overtly lyrical. But I did experience an unintended consequence to listening to the work on the air that had nothing specifically to do with Harbison’s score.

Listening to the broadcast in my living room, I was able to do something which never would have happened at Mills Hall on Saturday night: I laid down on the carpet and listened with eyes closed. I began to think of how I’d heard the Pro Arte Quartet at least seven times in the last year and a half or so, in at least four different venues. Harbison’s piece is full of special “detail” moments, with one player or another weaving in and out of the collective texture. I found myself picturing violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp almost more vividly than if I had been there in person.

There was one other special moment that would have been missed on Saturday night, when radio host Lori Skelton made a wonderful comment triggered by the names of the fourth and sixth movements of Harbison’s work, “Visi (Faces)” and “Cuori (Hearts).” I regret not having jotted it down, but the gist of Skelton’s remark was that there could scarcely be a better metaphor for the thousands of people the Pro Arte Quartet has touched over the course of a century, than to reflect on their legacy as one listened to this newest work composed for them.

There might not be a more fitting conclusion to the Pro Arte centennial season than the String Quartet of Cesar Franck, unarguably the greatest of all Belgian composers. The first lasting foursome of the Pro Arte (1919-1940), of course played this masterpiece many times, and today’s incarnation brought all their passion and sensitivity to bear on Sunday afternoon.

It is no surprise that the group honored their ensemble’s tradition with their four concerts this season. It is as gratifying to know that the legacy is insured as well, as the cd of the season’s four world premieres will be completed in May.

I look forward to that release…and to an in-person visit to “Live from the Chazen.” I need to thank Lori Skelton and WPR in person for the unexpected combination of musical/marriage “therapy!”

Photo: Pro Arte Quartet, courtesy of Rick Langer

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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