A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Oct 1, 2013
10:09 AM
Classically Speaking

The Lights Are Still On for Pro Arte Party

The Lights Are Still On for Pro Arte Party


Parry Karp, Suzanne Beia, Sally Chisholm and David Perry

The 100th season of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet—an unprecedented milestone for any chamber ensemble in history—was celebrated throughout the 2011-12 season. Each of the four concerts included a world premiere by a major composer, guest lectures, media coverage far and wide and a double-CD of the premiered works produced by a Grammy-winning producer.

During the past season things appeared to have returned to normal, which is to say the Pro Arte rolled out their usual series of free concerts and “Sundays at the Chazen” broadcasts with an excellence the envy of some better-known ensembles. But there was one apparently “leftover” centennial event that had been scheduled for last April that was postponed until Monday night.

Violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp gathered in Studio A of Wisconsin Public Television, and played nearly ninety minutes (without intermission!) before an invited audience. The performance will be integrated into an upcoming documentary by WPT (air date to be determined; rest assured you will hear of it in this space).

The program was structured to include works integral to the history of the Quartet throughout its stunning tenure: the “Prelude” of Ernest Bloch, String Quartet No. 7 of Milhaud, John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5, the ubiquitous “Adagio” of Samuel Barber in its original version, and Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 387.

While I had soaked up all things Pro Arte for nearly two years by the end of the official centennial season, the opening moments of the Bloch Monday evening was a swift and powerful reminder of just how superb this group is. The Milhaud quartet was written in 1925, and one mused upon how the original Pro Arte was only beginning its teen-aged years (so to speak) when they gave the world premiere.

The Harbison was one of the commissions of the centennial season; I had missed that premiere in April 2012, but blogged about the next day’s performance heard over radio from the Chazen. It was fascinating to recall that, as I had formerly listened to it in my living room, I kept picturing the players as they navigated this compelling score. Monday night I found myself often closing my eyes so as to immerse more completely in the sonic landscape without visual distraction.

So many listeners through the years have heard Barber’s orchestral arrangement known as “Adagio for Strings” in concert and films (done at the behest of Arturo Toscanini after he’d heard the original quartet version), that few realize it was “just” the slow movement of his Quartet, Op. 11, and the Pro Arte Quartet gave the world premiere in Rome in 1936. The Studio A performance was a moving revisiting of the cleanliness of line and inner dialogue that can easily become obscured by a full string section in this miniature masterpiece.

And why end with Mozart? Because of that composer’s great set of six works known as the “Haydn” quartets (dedicated to the great colleague) five of them, including K. 387, were among the most often performed by the original Brussels fab four.

But wait—there’s more. The Pro Arte has another world premiere scheduled for November 22 at Mills Concert Hall, the String Quartet No. 3 of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier. Sometime in early December, the double-CD of the first four world premieres will be released by Albany Records, and next May the group will return to its roots with a Belgian tour.

Why wait? You can hear the PAQ this Thursday, October 3, in Mills Hall, and as always, it is free. I know I’m not the only critic or blogger in town that writes about the super-abundance of great musical performances that pepper our concert calendar. But I still find it enigmatic that the Pro Arte’s Mills Hall appearances aren’t filled every time. The group ranks among the very best in the world, they are one of the greatest tangible manifestations of the “Wisconsin Idea,” and for crying out loud, the concerts are free. Go spoil yourself.

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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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