The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Even sick with flu, the UW’s Pro Arte string quartet excels

November 1, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you wanted an object lesson in what it takes to be a professional concertizing musician, you couldn’t ask for a better example than the concert Friday night by the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet. proartebw1

I’m not talking about depth of musicianship or breadth of technical mastery. The Pro Arte demonstrates those attributes every time it plays.

Rather, I’m referring to how – in this season of the regular seasonal flu and the new epidemic swine flu or H1NI flu – professional musicians have to deal with illness while they are scheduled to perform.

That’s because, as he was leaving the stage for intermission, Pro Arte cellist Parry Karp graciously announced that three members of the quartet were ill and so they had had to postpone a rehearsal.

As a result, they would cut short the concert and not perform second half, which was to feature Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74 (1809), a lovely but not easy work — is there any easy Beethoven? — that can be seen as either late middle Beethoven or early late Beethoven.

The audience seemed surprised by the half-time announcement.

But it was probably NOT because the flu was out there among us, as it always is at this time of the year.

Rather the first half of the concert showed no sign of strain or faltering, of players feeling under the weather.

In fact, what proved most surprising about the cancellation was that it came after the ensemble has turned in first-rate and convincing performances of two other classic works.

The concert opened with one of Haydn’ s Op. 20 “Sun” quartets (1772), which are too beautiful not to be performed more and recorded more. The Pro Arte played No. 4 in D major and the reading contained many sublime moments of doing exactly what Papa Haydn, who was pretty much the father of the string quartet, said a string quartet should do: Hold a conversation among equals.

In the slow moment especially, one would be hard pressed not to be deeply moved by the gorgeous harmonies and poignant melodies, expressed so effectively by the cello and the violins.

Then came Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 92 (1941). It is based on folk songs, love songs and folk dances, and has that wonderful mix of short spiky rhythms and long transparent melodic lines that I thinks makes Prokofiev the Russian Mozart of the 20th century to Shostakovich’s Beethoven.

The three movement work was sharply chiseled in its angular parts and singingly played in its lyrical moments. In the bouncy, exuberant finale, violist Sally Chisholm even rocked out, lifting her feet completely off the floor as she danced and tapped her toes and heels in mid-air.

Even half a Pro Arte concert always proves a memorable event, and this one did so in a special way.

I recall a famous concert pianist talking about how the life of a touring performing artist is a lot less glamorous than most people think. It involves mostly hotel rooms, strange concert halls, bad pianos, airports and the interior of airplanes.

And I also recall a cellist friend saying he gave one of his most inspired concerto performances when he was running a fever and didn’t feel like playing. But the tickets had been sold, the audience was in place and show had to go on.

Such devotion and endurance are what being a professional musician means. We amateurs find excuses for not performing. Not so for professionals, which is one reason why the Pro Arte will turn 100 next season – the longest lived string quartet in history.

It will be interesting to see if the Pro Arte programs the Beethoven for another concert this season. One hopes so. Maybe they will even perform it on “Sunday Afternoon Life From the Chazen” on Nov. 8, although the Haydn and Prokofiev would do just fine and deserve to be heard statewide on the Wisconsin Public Radio.

In the meantime, The Ear wishes the members of the Pro Arte a speedy and complication-free recovery.

And says thanks for the music, the lesson and the memory, all of which will last a long time.

Were you there at the Pro Arte concert?

What did you think of the playing?

Of the cancellation?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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