A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Nov 21, 2011
12:33 PM
Classically Speaking

Doubleheader at Mills: Powerful Pro Arte and Wonderful Wingra

Doubleheader at Mills: Powerful Pro Arte and Wonderful Wingra

UW–Madison is known for winning teams these days, but with apologies to all Badger sports fans, perhaps the greatest examples of teamwork are on display in the Humanities Building.

Saturday night the Pro Arte Quartet gave us installment number two of their four-concert Centennial Series. The latest world premiere, “Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet” by Paul Schoenfield, was bookended by Shostakovich and Beethoven. No empty calories at this feast …

The hallmark of all enduring ensembles is the consistent illustration of individual mastery almost miraculously combined into a new single entity. The current configuration of the Pro Arte—David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins, Sally Chisholm, viola, and Parry Karp, cello—have been together since 1995. Again I find myself unable to resist the soapbox: We have a living treasure in our midst, Madison, and I guarantee the enrichment of your minds and souls if you attend one of these FREE concerts. A review three times this length would still be mere prelude to describing the experience of watching and hearing these four artists mining the riches of some of the greatest art the world has known.

It was fascinating to hear the Fourth Quartet of Shostakovich just one week after Midori gave us the Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Madison Symphony. They are both works wrought from the crucible of the Soviet Union in the years immediately following World War II, and Shostakovich gives us multiple glimpses into the suffering inner life of a creative artist laboring under constant oppression. The String Quartet No. 4 gives us a bit more solace perhaps than the concerto, but whether in the haunting opening and closing pages, or in the incessant energy of the scherzo, the players gave an interpretation of clarity and richness.

Paul Schoenfield is one of those contemporary composers who seems to enjoy a greater audience response than critical acclaim—a circumstance probably desired by most composers of any period. His “Three Rhapsodies” do not make an organic whole, but each of them provides singular and lasting delights. “Metamorphoses on ‘Get a Job’” is a most unexpected riff on the 1957 Silhouettes hit, whose nonsense lyrics were once considered possible Cold War code language. Shoenfield turns it into a careening, pedal-to-the-metal ride that glitters and flashes like sparks off a grind stone. The second rhapsody was inspired by the Henry James story The Bench of Desolation. Schoenfield had given a summary of the tale in the pre-concert talk, but more fascinating was the way in which the movement, particularly at the close, was reminiscent of the Shostakovich (of course, Shoenfield had no idea as he was writing that it would be a programmatic soulmate). The finale draws its energy from klezmer, the style of passionately near-frantic music of the Jews of the Diaspora, particularly from Central Europe. Joined by the frequently dazzling young pianist, Brian Hsu, the Pro Arte tossed off the new opus with a panache that certainly accounted in part for the nearly immediate standing ovation.

The second half was given over to the quartet that Beethoven considered the greatest of his sixteen works in the genre, Op. 131. It is nearly symphonic in both length and certainly emotional breadth. The Pro Arte took us on a wordless journey that defined what a chamber music experience should be.

Each work programmed for this season has some connection to the Pro Arte’s history: The premieres because the Pro Arte Quartet was always on the cutting edge of new music; in 1993–94 they performed all fifteen of the Shostakovich quartets, and the Beethoven because they were in the midst of a complete Beethoven quartet cycle here in Madison when Hitler invaded Belgium and, as they say, the rest is history …

Happily, the history in the making has two installments left, March 24 and April 21. It is encouraging to report that the group has averaged about 600 in the audience so far, but the March 24 event will be in the Union Theater and, yes, still free admission. A word to the wise …

♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫

The woodwind quintet in general lives in the shadow of the string quartet, and even as a clarinetist, I’d have to say that’s for understandable reasons. But UW–Madison’s own Wingra Woodwind Quintet, established under that name for close to half a century in their own right, might be feeling a little more in the shadow of the Pro Arte.

While that would be understandable, more’s the pity, as flutist Stephanie Jutt, clarinetist Linda Bartley, oboist Marc Fink, bassoonist Marc Vallon and Linda Kimball on horn are worth a hearing any time. But add in pianist Christopher Taylor for not one, but three works, and one can only wish that Mills Hall had been nearly full again on Sunday afternoon.

The six players opened with a brief but beautiful rarity of Albert Roussel, the Divertissment, Op. 6. Taylor drove the jauntiness, the winds gave the opening and closing bucolic wistfulness its due. The winds alone offered a fabulous transcription by George Pope of “Five Anniversaries” by Leonard Bernstein. Originally for solo piano, these miniatures emerged with even more personality and beauty than in the original. Taylor returned for “Five Fold Five” of William Bolcom—the composer next featured in a world premiere in March by the Pro Arte, with Taylor at the keyboard for his “Piano Quintet No. 2.” The 1987 “Five Fold Five” proved a spikier than expected work, but the closing section is urgently propelled by a “boogie-woogie” keyboard part that makes the end of the ride just plain fun.

One of the few pillars of the repertoire for piano and winds is the Sextet of Poulenc. The entire group played it to the hilt, with a close to the first movement that was off-the-charts brilliant. It was a wonderful coda to a weekend that reminded many in Madison of some of the occasionally overlooked things—and people—that we can be thankful for.

Photo by 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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