The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The UW’s Pro Arte Quartet Centennial makes history by marking history — from informative lectures on exiled artists to an outstanding concert with a world premiere.

October 25, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Where are the officials of the Guinness Book of World Records when you really need them?

Even as a member of the centennial commission, I found myself impressed with the first events in the season-long $500,000 celebration of the world-record 100th anniversary of the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), which was exiled in Madison in 1940 when Hitler invaded its homeland of Belgium.

This past week saw lectures and open rehearsals. But the biggest events took place on Saturday afternoon and evening. They included a guest lecture by cultural historian Joseph Horowitz; a cocktail reception and dinner; a pre-concert discussion with Horowitz and composer Walter Mays; and a memorable concert that included the world premiere of the first of the four new works commissioned by the string quartet to mark the 100th birthday – a unique event in world history.

I find I am at a loss when it comes to presenting such a series of events in a smooth and cohesive narrative or review. So instead I offer this run-down:

ATTENDANCE: The first of four concerts and world premieres of commissions did not draw a full house to Mills Hall; but it was close, maybe a four-fifths house from what I could see. That isn’t bad considering the event was up against the opening of the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art; the World Series; a UW night football game broadcast on TV; and other Saturday night events. Still, the Pro Arte deserves a full house and one can hope they get it before the season is over.

BROCHURE and SOUVENIR PROGRAM GUIDE: These works turned into keepsakes with a handsome design and terrific execution, all based on an old vinyl record album and its cover (below) and filled with historic photos, candid snapshots and lots of information. Even the audience recognized the quality by offering donations. It is worth coming to a concert just to get a copy of this beautiful keepsake publication.

JOSEPH HOROWITZ LECTURE: A New York-based prolific writer, conductor and classical music producer/curator, Horowitz (below) discussed artists in exile and their impact on American culture. He focused specifically on Antonin Dvorak and Igor Stravinsky, and included amazing videos to show how newsreels of World War II and Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha” profoundly influenced exiled composers, as did indigenous American cultures of the American Indian and African-American populations.

Articulate and yet accessible, Horowitz, whose talks were also part of the Wisconsin Book Festival, proved to be the model of a public intellectual with a wide range of cultural knowledge. Often his digestible analyses proved nonetheless revelatory. We would be lucky to have him back again soon and often.

PRE-CONCERT CONVERSATION: Local critic John W. Barker, who writes mostly for Isthmus but also for this blog, moderated a discussion with composer Walter Mays (below left) and cultural historian Joseph Horowitz (below right). Mays was especially incisive in talking about classical music’s “ Cold War’ between tonality and 12-tone or atonality, and how eclectic has come to be desirable. The unusual Mills hall stage setting, warmed up with a rug, potted plants and a standing floor  lamp, added to the intimacy.

THE FREE CONCERT: All else, of course, could be and should be viewed as a prelude to the concert. In microcosm, it traced the history of the Pro Arte Quartet (below), which has long-established a reputation both for performing classic works and for championing contemporary works.

So it opened with a rarely heard and unjustly neglected short Prelude for String Quartet ( 1928) by Ernest Bloch.

That was followed by a riveting performance of Samuel Barber’ String Quartet in B Minor, op. 11. Few people know that the slow movement – the basis of the famous and frequently heard “Adagio for Strings” – was given its world premiere in Rome in 1936 by the Pro Arte. And they did it full justice.

Frankly, if you take away that movement, the string quartet hardly seems a masterpiece. But with that movement, it becomes undeniably universal. And curiously, I found the original form of the Adagio, with just the four instruments, more intimate, clear and moving — but less tear-jerky — than the more familiar orchestrated version Toscanini commissioned and premiered in 1938.

After intermission, the second half of the concert was devoted to a single work: Schubert’s profoundly beautiful and ethereal Cello Quintet (1828), in which Juilliard faculty member Bonnie Hampton (below) joined the pro Arte. It was by turns lyrical and forceful, with Hampton and Pro Arte cellist Parry Karp clearly connecting. “I am prepared to argue it is the single best piece of chamber music ever composed,” one deeply knowledgeable critic, John W. Barker, remarked to me. And I am prepared to accept his argument without much convincing.

But after the Barber and before the Schubert came the main attraction, the news-making event.

THE WORLD PREMIERE: Kansas composer Walter Mays (below) composed his String Quartet No. 2 (2011) as the first Pro Arte commission of the centennial. (He also wrote his first string quartet for the Pro Arte, which has recorded it.) “Dreaming Butterfly” is the title of the work, and its is based on the tale of a Chinese master who fell asleep and dreamed he was a butterfly and then, when he woke up, wondered if he might really be a butterfly dreaming he was a man.”

Whether you buy into the Taoist program or not, the work proved appealingly eclectic and accessible. It is, I find, more effective than deep. But it has its charm, a certain scherzo-like lightness that I find almost Mendelssohn-like. Moreover, the way Mays blended tonality and 12-tone approaches, he created a kind of fusion music with distinctly Asian sounds.

At times the music drifted and needed a melody to anchor it – I am an unabashed fan of tunes who thinks long-lasting music usually has a memorable melody. It could also have used more of a overarching line or forward momentum to give it unity. I think of the way Beethoven uses trills in his “Cockcrow” Violin Sonata No. 10 as an example of how to mix etude-like special effects on strings (glissandos, falsettos and trills) to a more musical effect. On the other hand, its kind of Neo-Impressionism combined with its jumping back and forth reminded one of Debussy, a master of cross-cultural sounds.

Despite its length, Mays’ quartet was easy music to listen to but hard music to play, and you can tell by their easy virtuosity that the Pro Arte rehearses every weekday from 9 a.m. to noon. My crystal ball doesn’t tell me whether this work will have legs to get repeated performances in the future, though I have my doubts. But it was an effective and enjoyable opener that brought cheers and a standing ovation from the audience.

All in all, the several days’ events whetted one’s appetite for the next concert commission and centennial events, which will feature a new Piano Quintet “Three Rhapsodies” by Paul Schoenfield (coupled with Beethoven’s Op. 131 masterpiece and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 4) as well as a lecture by Bill McGlaughlin, host of the popular “Exploring Music” program on Wisconsin Public Radio. Those events take place Nov. 14-20.

Here is another reviews by Lindsay Christians in 77 Square:


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

For more information about Centennial events, visit the Pro Arte Quartet’ s website at:

To find out events for November and to stream the entire concert, you can can also visit the UW School of Music’s Events Calendar and click on the loudspeaker icon at:

Posted in Classical music

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