The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: UW’s Pro Arte Quartet scores another success with the world premiere of Paul Schoenfield’s “Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet” and a lecture by NPR’s Bill McGlaughlin. But where are The Big Critics who harp on New Music?

November 22, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend saw the second concert of this season’s ongoing centennial celebration of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet. It brought the world premiere of the second of the four new works that the quartet has commissioned: Paul Schoenfield’s “Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet.”

The performance also featured guest pianist Brian Hsu (below , with the Pro Arte), who is studying at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where Schoenfield is teaching composition.

It takes a while for new music to settle down in the listener’s mind. But after two hearings  — the first live on Saturday night in Mills Hall, the second from a live broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Sunday Live at the Chazen” – I have some impressions.

First, the 30-minute work is an accessible and enjoyable work for the general public to hear, much like Schoenfield’s very popular and much performed “Café Music.” It is a little more spiky, but overall goes down easily.

Second, it is deceptive in its tunes and a fiercely difficult work to play. Even during its comparatively “easier” parts, the score seems to require great virtuosity from the string quartet and especially from the pianist, which is not surprising given that Schoenfield (below) himself is a concert-level pianist.

That leads me to two major questions.

Given how often music critics complain about the lack of New Music, why haven’t the Pro Arte Quartet commissions received more reviews and other coverage or attention from the The Big Critics on the East and West Coasts?

Is the Midwest just Fly-Over Land culturally, too? Do world premieres of works by major composers not really count unless they take place in New York, LA or DC? That is another question worth pursuing for another time, but it is certainly worth at least raising now.

One way that Schoenfield anchors his music is by linking it to other art, both vernacular or popular and high-brow. So the first rhapsody drew on the 1950’s doo-wop song “Get a Job” by The Silhouettes; the second drew on a love story novella by Henry James, “The Bench of Desolation”; and the third rhapsody (an excerpt is below) drew on the energetic rhythms and appealing harmonies and melodies of klezmer music that has influenced other of Schoenfield’s compositions.

To my ears, the most appealing part of the three was the high-energy finale. After that I would put the second rhapsody, which starts in the quasi-atonal mood of unrequited love and finishes with the beautifully tonal pathos and redemption of the original story.

The fun first movement is impressive as a performance pieces – at times an ensemble toccata — but musically it seems the least interesting and lasting, though perhaps the most immediately accessible and recognizable, of the three.

Still, I think this music has a future, although that future may be a bit compromised by the difficulty of the score. Certainly the audience liked it and greeted it with prolonged applause and an immediate standing ovation.

There were other things worth noting about the events on Saturday, the culmination of a five days of lectures, rehearsals and workshops.

For one, the audience was even bigger than for the first concert in October. This time I would put the house at over 90 percent, with maybe 50 free seats.) Some audience members left after intermission, but not many.

The Pro Arte Quartet (below) itself was in fine shape, turning in a dark and moody Shostakovich Quartet No. 4 in D Major. The second half featured Beethoven’s late Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Beethoven thought it was his finest. But Beethoven was wrong, just as he was wrong when he thought his Op. 78 piano sonata was better than the famous “Moonlight” Sonata. (He was, however, right about his “Appassionata” Sonata and the Symphony No. 7.)

The Pro Arte played the Beethoven very well and with intensity. But a certain edge and depth seemed missing or at least attenuated. One wondered if perhaps the hard work of preparing the Schoenfield cut into the preparation of the quirky Beethoven, which itself is deceptively hard with a quiet virtuosity. As Stravinsky once said, Beethoven’s late quartets will always be contemporary. Such a beautiful but unorthodox work does not play itself or come across easily, to be sure, especially after the dark and brooding Shostakovich and the lively and crackling Schoenfield. For all its many beauties, the concluding Beethoven somehow seemed betwixt and between.

Some other things about Saturday’s events deserve singling out.

Earlier in the afternoon the host of NPR’s “Exploring Music,” Bill McGlaughlin (below) turned in a terrrific performance as he discussed the artist as an early warning signal of cultural change. He spoke to a full house in an auditorium at the UW Business School.

It was illuminating to see McGlaughlin, who combines deep erudition with easy accessibility, at work. He tends to be associative and to meander, not always completing the point he has started or answering the question he has been asked. But this composer, former conductor and orchestra musician demonstrates a vast knowledge and deep personal appreciation of classical music as well as the ability to make unexpected connections among Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Wagner and Schoenberg. And when he sat down, silent and with his eyes closed just to listen, the intensity of his involvement in music was obvious, endearing and telling.

The Ear was particularly interested to hear McGlaughlin discuss Mozart (below) as a dangerous, demonic and sensually subversive composer  in the opera ”Don Giovanni” and the String Quintet in G Minor  as well as the sublime charmer of so many other works.

During the pre-concert question-and-answer session between McGlaughlin and Schoenfield (below, with moderator John W. Barker in the middle), composer Schoenfield also confessed to the endless difficulty he still has composing and made some surprisingly frank and personal revelations about how he works, including his use of a composer.

Kudos also to the University Club, which provided a tasty buffet dinner (and free post-concert dessert reception) where one could mingle with other local musicians, including Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conductor Andrew Sewell and UW oboist Marc Fink among many others. Clearly, the Pro Arte Quartet Centennial celebration seems expanding as it continues, not petering out.

If you are thinking about attending the third and fourth world-premiere concerts – and you should, if you love classical music and chamber music  –here is the information: They are FREE and will be held on Saturday, March 24, at 8 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater (William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2 with UW virtuoso Christopher Taylor, plus works by Webern, Milhaud and Mozart) and on Saturday, April 23, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall (John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 plus works by Haydn and Franck). You might well enjoy the cash-bar receptions and dinners.

For more information about the various concerts, open rehearsals, lectures and dinner reservations, visit

If you want to stream the Saturday night performances and hear them for yourself, go to this address and click on the loudspeaker icon on Nov. 19 and also Oct. 22:

For other local reviews of this past weekend, see Lindsay Christians’ in 77 Square (The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal):

And see Greg Hettmansberger’s for his Madison Magazine blog “Classically Speaking”:

If you heard the Pro Arte Quartet concert or part of it, what do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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