A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 26, 2012
11:34 AM
Classically Speaking

Pro Arte Party Resumes, with Expanded Guest List

Pro Arte Party Resumes, with Expanded Guest List

The unprecedented centennial season of the Pro Arte Quartet resumed Saturday night, and its third concert of the series proved bigger and better in a couple of significant ways: The ensemble moved from their usual digs at Mills Hall to the Union Theater, and the foursome invited a couple of friends to share in a couple of quintets.

Having had large, but slightly under capacity, audiences at Mills last fall, it was gratifying to see that the Union Theater was nearly filled, even in the upper balcony. The crowd could not have picked a more historic night on which to enjoy violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp. The Union Theater stage was the same venue from which it was announced on May 10, 1940 that Hitler had just invaded Belgium; steps were quickly set in motion to make the Pro Arte Quartet the first ensemble in residence at any university, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Happily, it is history that is still being made, as each of the four programs this year features a world premiere of note. On this occasion, it was the Piano Quintet No. 2 of William Bolcom, with the guest artist being our own Christopher Taylor, who has enjoyed a professional relationship with Bolcom since he was but eleven years old.

But before the new work was introduced, the historic tone of the evening was set by recognizing returning Pro Arte alumni, and a memoriam to one of the greatest friends the Pro Arte ever enjoyed. Norman Paulu, first violinist from 1967-95, Richard Blum, violist from 1957-91, and Martha Francis Blum, second violinist from 1974-88, were all on hand, along with David Milofsky, son of Bernard Milofsky, violist from 1947-57. Milofsky’s career was cut short by multiple sclerosis, but he became a close friend of James F. Crow, distinguished professor and scientist as well as a fine musician. Milofsky eventually gave his viola to Crow, and Crow eventually played a catalytic role in spearheading an endowment to ensure the long term viability of the Pro Arte. It was just over a year ago that Crow played his traditional public recital to celebrate his 95th birthday, but passed away early this year.

Thus the occasion was dedicated to his memory, and while every programmed work this season has some connection to the history of the group, this concert began with a special tribute: violist Sally Chisholm played Stravinsky’s “Elegy” for unaccompanied viola, commissioned as a memorial to founding violist Germain Prevost, and premiered in Madison in 1945. Chisholm’s playing was the ultimate in non-verbal eloquence.

The current quartet opened the printed program with the “Langsamer Satz” of Webern, which fittingly enough emerged as an expanded commentary on the preceding “Elegy,” despite being written some sixty years earlier. The String Quartet No. 7 of Milhaud followed (the original Pro Arte premiered this and Milhaud’s sixth, eighth and ninth quartets!). The 1925 work is less the spiky and sassy Milhaud, save for a hint in the finale, but gave the group a chance to capture a myriad of sunny shadings and wistful whispers.

The Bolcom Piano Quintet No. 2 emerged as a fierce work; one is tempted to say “angry,” but the negative connotation may be misleading. Especially in the first movement the dynamic is often piano versus strings, and the second movement gave the impression of waiting for an imminent explosion. The “Scherzo nero” was a feisty affair, with an unflagging urgency in its 6/8 propulsion. The brief finale may not provide the catharsis some longed for, but does feature a return of the opening material. A majority of the audience stood in ovation, and more joined when Bolcom came back onstage for a solo bow; as with many of his works, it seems destined for additional performances, and as with all the world premieres by the Pro Arte this year, will be recorded in the spring.

The second half of the evening saw the welcome return of an old Pro Arte Quartet friend, violist Samuel Rhodes. In his position for more than four decades with the Juilliard Quartet and extensive associations with festivals, premieres and as soloist, he is one of the treasures of American music. He is also the composer of a String Quintet, which he recorded with the Pro Arte a few years ago.
But on this occasion all concerned exerted their considerable individual and collective powers upon a masterpiece of Mozart, the Quintet in G Minor, K. 516. Suddenly we seemed worlds apart from the first half of the concert; this was all silk and grace, driven by a unanimity of phrasing and textural blend of the highest order. When musicians know both the work and each other at this level, one simply experiences the apex of what live music is all about.

And so we have but one more chance to participate in this landmark season: On April 21 it is back to Mills Hall for a program offering the world premiere of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5. My guess is you’d better get there early — or prepare to stand.

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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