A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 25, 2011
10:40 AM
Classically Speaking

Pro Arte Quartet Makes Grand Down Payment on Centennial Celebration

Pro Arte Quartet Makes Grand Down Payment on Centennial Celebration

One can’t honestly say that the Pro Arte Quartet’s centennial season has been overhyped. After all, sports teams and political turmoil typically dominate the headlines and water cooler talk around the state. But for any cultural fans who managed to grasp the import of an unprecedented 100th season for a group that has called Madison its home since 1940, it was a fair question: Could Saturday night’s opening concert live up to such a historic occasion?

The answer was a reverberant “yes,” and then some. From the opening languid phrase of Ernest Bloch’s “Prelude” at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, to the final flourish of Schubert’s masterful String Quintet in C major a couple of hours later, the Pro Arte Quartet players of the last sixteen years fully lived up to their centennial motto: “Preserving a legacy, forging the future.”

Of course the concert was only the climax to a series of celebratory events that began earlier in the week. On Saturday afternoon, guest lecturer and celebrated author Joseph Horowitz spoke in the Pyle Center, taking his subject from aspects of his book, Artists in Exile. (The relatively sparse attendance can be blamed in part on the beautiful late October weather, but as all the Centennial events, other than pre-concert dinners, are free, it is hoped that the future guest lecturers opine to full houses.)

Horowitz was joined at 7 p.m. on the Mills Hall stage by composer Walter Mays, whose “String Quartet No. 2” was the first of the four world premieres featured this season. Moderated by professor emeritus John Barker, the pair shared a number of insights into Mays’ work and took questions from the audience.

It is a joy to report that long before 8 o’clock Mills Hall was very full; an unofficial estimate came in at something over 600, and equally encouraging was the diversity in age. Every work programmed this season has some connection to the Pro Arte’s history (the aforementioned Bloch gem was composed after the Pro Arte’s early benefactor, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, had helped the composer get established in the U.S.; the Quartet recorded all of Bloch’s chamber music for strings in the 1980s).

The second work was the “String Quartet in B minor” of Samuel Barber—the composition that contains the original version of what has become one of the most performed works of our time: “Adagio for Strings.” The Pro Arte Quartet gave the premiere of the work somewhat unexpectedly in 1936. The outer movements in the Barber original are rather brief, if engaging, and the central Adagio did not disappoint. Listeners who have only heard the version for orchestral strings may fear that the familiar searing climax cannot be replicated by a mere foursome. Well, it can’t—but we gain when one hears an ensemble such as the Pro Arte bring out the subtly overlapping dissonances, building to an inexorable crisis; it is almost possible to forget that any other version exists.

A world premiere is like a Christmas gift in a box that changes size, wrapped in paper with a question mark motif: Will it be a great thing in a small package, something overwhelming—or a “white elephant?” Walter Mays’ gift to the Centennial Season was wrapped in the subtitle “Dreaming Butterfly,” an allusion to the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s famous dream. Better still was the gift itself: music of mystery that evolves into captivating tone painting. First violinist David Perry was given the lion’s share of the task of creating the butterfly motifs, while cellist Parry Karp offered a tour de force of pizzicato playing in the central movement. It might go without saying—but would be a criminal omission—to not state that second violinist Suzanne Beia and violist Sally Chisholm were every bit the gentlemen’s equals. After all, every great quartet maybe a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but each player richly earns their due.

Mays has written for the Pro Arte before: His “String Quartet in G minor” was written for the same cast in 1998. This is purported to be quite a different piece; having only heard “Dreaming Butterfly,” I can state that Mays passed the first test of a world premiere with flying colors—one is eager to hear it again. Happily, the work will, as with all the world premieres this season, be recorded for Albany Records.

As if it weren’t enough to share such an august occasion among themselves, the Pro Arte invited a special guest to round out the celebratory concert. Cellist Bonnie Hampton not only has the artistic track record to collaborate on this occasion, but a true pedigree: She was a friend of Robert Maas, one of the earliest cellists in the group’s history, and there have been other overlapping connections throughout her distinguished career.

The Schubert “Quintet in C” is arguably as beautiful and profound a work as has been composed in Western civilization, in any genre. It is not unusual for fine ensembles to enlist a solid assist for the work and make them feel at home; Madison’s Ancora Quartet celebrated their tenth anniversary with Karl Lavine in a memorable performance last season, to name a recent example. But Hampton sounded more than at home; the resulting performance Saturday made it seem as though she has been a part of the group for a decade or so—just as the others have.

The icing on the evening’s cake was literally a dessert reception in the Mills Hall lobby, but the real treat is that this party is far from over: Installment #2 arrives on November 19. Mark your calendars.

Photo courtesy of the Pro Arte Quartet.

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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
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