The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: UW”s Pro Arte Quartet wows the crowd in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2. | March 29, 2012


By Jacob Stockinger

First things first: For the sake of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I am a member of the Pro Arte Quartet’s centennial committee. Please keep that in mind as you read the following review.

There was The New York Times’ acclaimed senior music critic Anthony Tommasini (below right) talking about the importance and excitement of programming new music as he also praised the deeply American eclecticism of composer William Bolcom (below left) to Bolcom’s face.

And then on the same stage shortly later came the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2, given Saturday night at a free community concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater by the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte Quartet and UW pianist Christopher Taylor (below).

The nearly full house of about 1,000 greeted the work with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Was it because of the music? Or was it because of the history-making event by the “home team”? Hard to tell, and maybe it doesn’t really matter.

But they stood and cheered the Pro Arte Quartet, which this season is celebrating its centennial as the longest lived, still active quartet in history.

The concert started with an opening tribute to famed geneticist and Pro Arte supporter James Crow, who died in January. Standing alone on the big stage, Pro Arte violist Sally Chisholm performed Stravinsky’s Elegy for Solo Viola. It fit the occasion. It was commissioned by Pro Arte violist Germain Prevost to pay homage to Alphonse Onnou, the group’s founding first violinist and was premiered in Madison in 1944 at Edgewood College with Stravinsky present.

The concert officially opened with the Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” or “Slow Movement,” a beautiful, rich and late Romantic work that was composed in 1905 and premiered in 1962, one that drew you into it at one.

Then came Darius Milhaud’s Quartet No. 7, another work commissioned by and then premiered by the Pro Arte String Quartet in 1925. Its plucky pizzicato passages and clear textures plus some upbeat music hall-like tunes gave it a certain French lightness that balanced the thicker texture of the Webern. Together, they made a perfect package.

Then came Bolcom’s piano quintet.

The Bolcom work received a rousing, energetic performance. This is a dark and dynamic work with virtuosic passages, especially for the piano, and a lot of parts talking to each other  – and Taylor brought his part off brilliantly. But if you were looking for the kind of tuneful, earlier ragtime and cabaret music, more lyrical, easy-going and elegiac, that you find in Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost” and similar works, you were probably a bit disappointed or let down.

The work by Bolcom (below) seemed thoroughly competent and professional, very good but not great. It did not seem especially inspired, even on a second hearing over the radio. I walked out of the hall and couldn’t recall a passage that made me want to hear it again right away. That is not a good sign that a contemporary masterpiece is at hand.

Of course Time will have the final say, and I hope I am wrong. I have spoken to professional musicians who say I am wrong and who are more positive about its future. And my own track record with contemporary music is not great. The Bolcom quintet had some beautiful and dramatic movements, and the second movement proved the most moving.

Maybe Bolcom’s piano quintet will indeed enjoy a long shelf life and many repeat performances soon. But my ears said don’t count on it, and my thoughts told me it is easier to create an event than it is to create great music.

I hope we get to read what Tommasini thought, given his forceful advocacy of new music and eclecticism.

The concert concluded with Mozart’s great String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516, with guest violist Samuel Rhodes (below, with fellow violist Sally Chisholm) of the Julliard String Quartet. Rhodes is a frequent and favorite guest artist of the quartet and he seems right at home whenever he sits in.

I have heard, and really like, a more aggressive and muscular Mozart (below), a more dramatic or even operatic Mozart that is edgy within limits and good taste.

So I wondered if perhaps if some of my small letdown came from being the familiar Mozart being comparatively under-rehearsed with all the attention going to the new Bolcom score and maybe even the unfamiliar and difficult Milhaud.

Or maybe the music itself seemed a bit subdued and less forthright because of the context: The Mozart lacks the piercing and spiky percussiveness of the piano in the Bolcom and the pluckiness of the strings of the Milhaud.

Or maybe the quartet was just a bit tired from all the events and playing that led up to the concert.

Or maybe, just maybe, that is how the various players like their Mozart.

After all, it was elegant and lyrical Mozart all the same, beautiful Mozart, and it was refreshing to hear the work performed live. Mozart’s string quintets are among the most unjustly programmed chamber music works we have. And the audience sure liked it, giving it another standing ovation (below).

All in all, it was a long and successful afternoon and evening event that lasted a good seven hours. It started with Tommasini’s lecture on the state of contemporary music at 3; then people adjourned for cocktails and dinner that reunited past member the Pro Arte, including former first violinist Norman Paulu (below top) and the former husband-and-wife team of violist and second violinist Richard and Martha Blum (below middle).

Then came an engaging pre-concert discussion with comoser Bolcom and critic Tommasini that was moderated by UW pianist Todd Welbourne; then came the concert; and then the dessert reception. It was quite the historic arts event, all free and well attended and very well received.

Here are links to two other reviews:

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/pro-arte-premieres-stormy-bolcom-quintet/article_65c8c108-7686-11e1-96be-001871e3ce6c.html

And here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2012/Pro-Arte-Party-Resumes-with-Expanded-Guest-List/

The final of the four FREE centennial concerts and commissions this season will be in Mills Hall on Saturday, April 21, at 8 p.m. It features the world premiere of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5, composed in 10 short movements. Also featured will be quartets by Haydn (Op. 54, No. 2 in C major) and Cesar Franck, plus a lecture by British critic Tully Potter, a dinner at the Chazen Museum of Art; and a pre-concert interview with British musicologist and critic Tully Potter and composer Harbison. Be sure to mark your calendars and datebooks.

For more information, go to www.proartequartet.org


1 Comment »

  1. [...] Classical music review: UW”s Pro Arte Quartet wows the crowd in … [...]

    Pingback by Arte final | Adventureleap — March 30, 2012 @ 12:31 am


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