The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Stephen Hough explains why the piano concerto by Dvorak is not heard more often — even as he is about to record it. Hear it here. Plus, you can hear via live streaming the Pro Arte Quartet play works by Mozart, Beethoven and Benoit Mernier at the Chazen Museum starting at 12:30 p.m.

May 3, 2015
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ALERT: It is the first Sunday of the month. That means the Chazen Museum of Art will broadcast its own version of “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” — abandoned by Wisconsin Public Radio after 36 years — via live streaming as well as FREE and public attendance.

Today’s concert features chamber music starting at 12:30 p.m. with a link directly from the Chazen website. The artists are the UW-Madison’s popular Pro Arte Quartet performing the String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4, by Ludwig van Beethoven; the String Quartet in A Major, K. 414, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoit Mernier, which the Pro Arte (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) is about to record.

Here is a link to the Chazen for streaming the concert:

http://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/events-calendar/event/sal-5-3-15/

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

By Jacob Stockinger

British pianist, composer, painter, blogger and polymath Stephen Hough is one of the outstanding concert pianists on the scene today. He has performed several times in Madison, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and at the Wisconsin Union Theater, giving master classes at the UW-Madison School of Music.

Known for both his outstanding technique and his deep musicality, Hough (below) has won numerous of awards and Hyperion will soon release three new CDs that each feature his own compositions as well as other standard repertoire.

Hough_Stephen_color16

So The Ear was pleased to read what Hough recently had to say about the neglected Piano Concerto by Antonin Dvorak (below top) whose Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto have fared much better, to say nothing of his symphonies and chamber music.

After all, the work’s last great champion was the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (below bottom), whose recorded performance you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom.

dvorak

Sviatoslav Richter

Wouldn’t it be fun to hear the Dvorak Piano Concerto performed live by some soloist – maybe Hough himself– and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a future season? What a chance to resurrect the neglected past and to explore an unknown work by a very well known and beloved composer.

I tend to trust Hough’s judgment, although he is especially close to the work these days as he prepares to record it. After all, he has played and often recorded most of the standard piano concertos and quite a few of the more rarely heard Romantic concertos.

Here are his remarks:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100076512/probably-my-favourite-piano-concerto/

And here is the famous performance by Sviatoslav Richter:

 


Classical music: The 57th annual Grammy Award nominations are out — and they provide a useful guide to holiday gift-giving.

December 9, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This year, the holiday gift-giving season went into high gear on Thanksgiving Day, not just Black Friday. That was followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and on and on.

Doesn’t such commercialism of the holidays just make you want to break into “Joy to the World” or the “Hallelujah” Chorus?

Traditionally, The Ear has offered many lists and compilations for suggested classical recordings for the holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, whatever.

Over this past weekend, the nominations for the 57th annual Grammy Awards were announced.

grammy award BIG

Of course, this event – no matter how hyped and prestigious for helping music  — is an industry honoring and promoting itself. So of course classical music is way down on the list, far behind more money-making and better selling genres.

But over the years The Ear has found that the nominees are actually more useful than the much shorter list of winners, which doesn’t come out anyway until well after the holidays.

So here is a link to the complete list of Grammy nominations. Just go the website, and scroll down to Category 72 though Category 81.

http://www.grammy.com/nominees

Sure, the Big Labels and Gray Ladies – such as Deutsche Grammophon and EMI – are represented.

And so are some pretty big New Names, including the astonishingly gifted prize-winning young pianist Daniil Trifonov (below), who, The Ear thinks, show get a Grammy for his Carnegie Hall recital. (Just listen to the YouTube video, taken from that live recital, at the bottom. It features a difficult Chopin prelude and notice the virtuosic ferocity combined with lyricism, the voicing, and the flexibility of tempo or rubato.)

danill trifonov

But once again The Ear notices how many recordings are being done by labels that have been established by the performing groups themselves or by smaller labels. Decentralization continues. So does the rediscovery of Baroque opera and early music as well as new music.

In addition, there continues to be an emphasis, established in recent years, on newer music and lesser known composers. So specialization also continues.

Notice too that veteran independent record producer Judith Sherman (below, holding the Grammy she won in 2012) is once again up for Producer of The Year – she has won it several times already.

Judith Sherman Grammy 2012

Sherman is the same person who recorded the impressive first double CD of four centennial commissions for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet. That release included string quartets by John Harbison and Walter Mays as well as Piano Quintets by Paul Schoenfield and William Bolcom.

pro arte cd commission cover

This spring Judith Sherman is coming back to the UW-Madison School to record the last two commissions: the terrific Clarinet Quintet based on Allen Ginsberg’s Beat poem “Howl’ by American composer Pierre Jalbert (below top) and for the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier (below bottom, in a photo by Lise Mernier).

Pierre Jalbert

Benoit Mernier by Lise Mernier

More such suggestions for classical music gifts are to come.

Usually critics from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal weigh in, as does Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine and the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR (National Public Radio), and The Ear will include those.

And often The Ear throws in his own idea for gifts, which often involves linking a local live concert with a CD or a book and a CD. Stay tuned.

In addition, other website devoted to classical music – say the BBC and radio stations WQXR in New York City and WMFT in Chicago –- often featured a Best of the Year compilation.

And here is a link to more about the Grammys, including background

http://www.grammy.com

The Grammys will be awarded on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015 and broadcast on CBS-TV from 8 to 11 p.m. LIVE from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.


Classical music: The Ear gets to hear a masterpiece in the making -– Pierre Jalbert’s “Howl” Clarinet Quintet. It sure sounds like it will become a staple of new music. Plus, the FREE Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison resume this Friday.

October 2, 2014
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ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales (below) in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, resume again this Friday, Oct. 3, at 12:15 to 1 p.m. This week’s featured group is the Arbor Ensemble  with flutist Berlinda Lopez, violinist Marie Pauls and pianist Stacy Fehr-Regehr in the music of Jacques Ibert, Cesar Cui, Bohuslav Martinu, Astor Piazzolla and Josef Suk.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

Imagine my unexpected joy at hearing the new Clarinet Quintet by American composer Pierre Jalbert (below), who was inspired by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s famous “Howl,” last Friday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Pierre Jalbert

The reason for my happiness is because I heard music that was so compelling and so moving that it made me want to listen to it again and again.

I know, I know.

A lot of proponents of new music say you have to listen to any new and unheard piece several times before you can pass judgment.

I don’t buy it.

True, as loyal readers know, I am generally not a fan of new music. I find too much of it unenjoyable and forgettable. It just doesn’t speak to me, for whatever reason. I like tunes and melody and harmonic mood as well as rhythmic pulse. New music too often seems detached from the emotional life of the listeners– or at least this listener.

I prefer music that speaks so deeply and movingly to me on the first hearing that I welcome any chance to hear it more often as another chance to experience beauty — not to fulfill some intellectual obligation or duty to the composer or the art form.

When I first heard Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, for example, I knew within one minute that I just had to hear it again and would hear it again many times. It never fails to disappoint. And so it is with any masterwork, from early music, through Baroque and Romantic music, to modern and contemporary music.

Anyway, the “Howl” Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert was performed last Friday night by the Pro Arte Quartet (below top, in a photo by Rick Langer), artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. The guest clarinetist was Charles Niedich (below bottom) from New York City, who has a major international reputation from working with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and other well-known ensembles.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

Charles Neidich CD Sallie Erichson

The performance came at the newly remodeled Wisconsin Union Theater, which the old Pro Arte Quartet helped to inaugurate when the theater opened 75 years ago in 1939. The theater was not sold-out Friday night, but there was a good and enthusiastic audience that rewarded the Jalbert with a prolonged standing ovation (below). So I know that I was not alone in my positive and approving reaction.

PAQ Jalbert audience ovation

Here is a link with more background:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/classical-music-the-free-world-premiere-by-the-pro-arte-quartet-of-american-composer-pierre-jalberts-clarinet-quintet-based-on-beat-poet-allen-ginsbergs-howl/

The program started off with the rarely heard and pretty tame String Quartet No. 2 by Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, a Spanish composer known as “the Spanish Mozart” who died at 20. The program’s fitting finale was the sublime Clarinet Quintet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In between the Arriaga and the Mozart came the Jalbert Clarinet Quintet, which was the final of six commissions done to mark the Pro Arte’s centennial. (The Pro Arte Quartet, originally from Belgium,  is now the oldest continuously performing string quartet in the world.)

Other elements added to the effectiveness. For one, the Pro Arte Quartet was in top form. Each voice was distinct and yet the overall blend was smooth, resonant and perfect in pitch. And their playing was enhanced by the terrific acoustics of the remodeled Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater and the new on-stage shell (below, in the background).

PAQ and Charles Neidich in Pierre Jalbert Howl

But it was really the music itself that swept The Ear away.

It started right away, with the pulsing and almost hypnotic rhythms of the opening measures.

The two outer fast movements proved infectious and involving. But I particularly loved the way the middle movement developed.

I heard various audience members talk about how the work reminded them of Samuel Barber, of Philip Glass, of John Adams, of Steve Reich. And yet it didn’t seem to imitate any of them. It possessed a pure, strong voice of its own that used the idea of “Howl” without becoming a didactic piece of program music.

It isn’t often you get to hear a new work that holds the promise of becoming a staple in the repertoire. But that is exactly how it felt as I listened to the Jalbert quintet. Others I spoke to agreed.

PAQ and Charles Neidich standing

Of the six centennial commissions that the Pro Arte has premiered over the past three years, this one seems the best one to end on because it seems the most likely one to succeed in coming years.

Sure, we may hear repeat performances of the String Quartets by John Harbison, Walter Mays and Benoît Mernier; of the Piano Quintets by William Bolcom and Paul Schoenfield. They are all recognized composers of quality.

But my money is on the work by Pierre Jalbert, which was by turns pensive and joyous, outraged and lamenting, much like the original poem “Howl.” The tone of both matched, and the clarinet, with its klezmer-like qualities, proved the perfect narrative voice imparted by Beat writer Allen Ginsberg (below).

Allen Ginsberg 1

It is a memorable night when you get to hear a masterwork in the making. All that work of chamber music needs now is history and many more repeat performances. I expect it will get those.

And to top it off, Pierre Jalbert (below right) -– who hails from Vermont and teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas — was a very nice artist who was extremely amiable at the pre-concert dinner at the Chazen Museum of Art as well as insightfully candid during the pre-concert Q&A (below) that was so expertly hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (center) and also included clarinetist Charles Neidich.

Jalbert Q&A

Anyway, the “Howl” Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert will be recorded by the same players for Albany Records, under the supervision of the Grammy Award-winning producer Judith Sherman, and then released with the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier.

I will be first in line to get it and set my CD player on repeat.

Can’t wait.

If you heard it, what do you think of the Clarinet Quintet by Pierre Jalbert, who offers his thoughts about composing in a YouTube video at the bottom?

Do you think it will become a staple of the repertoire?

The Ear wants to hear.

 

 


Classical music: The FREE world premiere by the Pro Arte Quartet of American composer Pierre Jalbert’s Clarinet Quintet — based on Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” — takes place this coming Friday night at 8 p.m. in the renovated Wisconsin Union Theater. The concert includes a composer interview and then a FREE dessert reception, where you can meet the composer and performers. A FREE encore performance is on this Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art and will be web-streamed live.

September 23, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday night will bring the FREE world premiere of the final work of the six commissions to mark the centennial of the Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Pro Arte Qartet  Overture Rick Langer

The work is a Clarinet Quintet, written Pierre Jalbert (below), a prize-winning American composer with French-Canadian roots. It will receive its world premiere at 8 p.m. on Friday night in the newly renovated Wisconsin Union Theater. A FREE dessert reception in the Memorial Union follows. There is also a FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC rehearsal, with the composer advising the string quartet, from 9 a.m. to noon on this Thursday morning in Mills Hall.

Pierre Jalbert

Here is a link to the Pro Arte Quartet’s website

http://proartequartet.org

And here is the official press release about the new work and the upcoming concert. It was researched and written by Mike Muckian (below), who also writes and blogs for Brava Magazine and the Wisconsin Gazette.

Michael Muckian color mug

MADISON, Wis. – When Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg (below) published “Howl” in 1956, he may have anticipated the obscenity charges he faced because of the work’s highly charged content. Chances are he didn’t foresee his epic poem, now considered a significant work of American literature, as the source of inspiration for a 21st-century chamber music composition.

Allen Ginsberg 1

Pierre Jalbert, an American composer of French-Canadian descent, thought otherwise. When commissioned by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet to compose an original work to help the quartet celebrate its centennial season, Jalbert chose Ginsberg’s poem as his source of inspiration.

Jalbert’s “Howl” for clarinet and string quartet will receive its world premiere by the Pro Arte on Friday, Sept. 26, at the Wisconsin Union Theater in the historic Memorial Union on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

The event, free and open to the public, will be the first classical music concert to take place in the venerable theater’s newly refurbished Shannon Hall (below top). 

Shannon Hall UW-Madison

The 8 p.m. concert will be preceded by a 7 p.m. concert preview discussion with Pierre Jalbert in Shannon Hall. In addition to Jalbert’s composition, the evening’s program includes the String Quartet No. 2 in A Major (1824) by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (below top) -– known as “the Spanish Mozart” — and the gorgeous Clarinet Quintet in A Major (1791) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below bottom).

Juan Crisostomo de Arriaga

Mozart old 1782

The Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) includes violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

PLEASE NOTE: The Pro Arte Quartet concert will be repeated Sunday, Sept. 28, at 12:30 p.m. in Gallery III at the Chazen Museum of Art, also on the UW-Madison campus. The concert will be streamed live worldwide on the Internet by the Madison-based Audio for the Arts.  Check the Chazen Museum of  Art’s website (www.chazen.wisc.edu) on the day of the concert. Details of  the Chazen music series for 2015 will be announced on Sunday at the concert. The new series is designed to replace the “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” series (below) of live chamber music concerts that was abruptly canceled by Wisconsin Public Radio last spring after 36 years.  Sunday’s concert is FREE and OPEN to the public; however, Chazen Museum of Art members can call 608-263-2246 to reserve seating.

SALProArteMay2010

Joining the Pro Arte for both concerts will be guest clarinetist Charles Neidich (below, in a photo by Sallie Eichson), a regular member of the New York City-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and noted guest performer with orchestras and string quartets worldwide. Here is a link to Neidich’s own impressive website:

http://www.charlesneidich.com

“The Jalbert quintet is a very exciting composition, often very rhythmic, but with very serenely quiet contrasting sections,” said Neidich. “It is also interesting in that the clarinetist has to switch to bass clarinet, creating a very different sound for the group.” (At bottom is a YouTube interview with Pierre Jalbert, who explains his philosophy of composing and his concern with the audience’s understanding of his work.)

Charles Neidich CD Sallie Erichson

Ginsberg (below, young), who died in 1997, began work on “Howl” as early as 1954. The poem was first published in “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956 as part of the “Pocket Poets” series by fellow beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, also known as founder of City Lights Books in San Francisco.

allen ginsberg young

Upon the poem’s release, both Ferlinghetti and City Lights manager Shigeyoshi Murao were arrested and charged with distributing obscene material because of the poem’s profanity, drug references and frank sexual content. Four months later, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the work was not obscene and charges against Ferlinghetti and his employee were dropped.

Judge Horn deemed “Howl” to have redeeming social content, and over the years it has proved its worth both in terms of social and literary value, according to Dr. Lynn Keller, the Martha Meier Renk Bascom Professor of Poetry in the UW-Madison Department of English.

lynn keller uw-madison

“’Howl’ stands out stylistically in its compellingly and varied repetition of words beginning successive lines, its near surrealist imagery, and its combination of agonized depictions at once hellish and lofty with a very appealing sense of humor,” Dr. Keller said. “In terms of content, it also stands out in celebrating the down-and-out hipster as spiritual quester and visionary.”

As part of the Beat Generation – as much a social as a literary phenomenon – Ginsberg’s celebration of physical pleasures and suspicions about “the military industrial complex” created a new path that still appeals to younger audiences.

“It is a powerful poem, a howl from the heart of an agonized generation in a repressive era,” Dr. Keller said.

Allen Ginsberg Howl cover

Jalbert was familiar with the poem prior to the Pro Arte commission, but it was only after he started composing the work that he began to realize the influence Ginsberg had on the music. Those similarities had less to do with the poem’s content and more to do with its structure and rhythm, the composer said.

“At the beginning of my piece, the clarinet is basically playing long tones, creating a long line much like the long lines in Ginsberg’s poem, while the strings present the rhythmically pulsating harmonic underpinning,” Jalbert said. “Ginsberg’s poem has been called a  ‘litany of praise,’ and the second movement of my work becomes a litany, much like a series of prayers in a liturgy, with the strings creating chant-like lines while the clarinet becomes the vox Dei, or “voice of God,” hovering mysteriously over everything. The third movement returns to the musical materials from the first movement, but now the bass clarinet takes on the virtuosic role.”

In keeping with emotional soundings in parts of “Howl,” Jalbert also has attempted to capture the “shrieks” that were characteristic to the poem alongside the aforementioned litany of praise.

allen ginsberg with flower

“There are buildups to shrieking moments in my piece as well as a “howl” motive of a low chord slurred up to an immediate high cluster, all played very forcefully,” said Jalbert. “There’s also something very urban about parts of the poem and to me, there’s an urban quality in my first and third movements. There are also many religious allusions and the last words of Christ on the cross, so the second movement uses some of this.”

The Jalbert composition is the final of six commissions for the Pro Arte Centennial seasons, and it has all the earmarks of a contemporary work with staying power, according to clarinetist Neidich.

“Having studied the score, I believe that it will be accessible to listeners and exciting to hear,” said Neidich. “It features the clarinet both in the role of soloist and as contributor to the sonority of the ensemble. It has all the necessary attributes to become a significant work.”

The Jalbert commission also brings to an end the Pro Arte’s seasons of centennial celebration in honor of the quartet’s long and storied history.

The Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels, first formed in 1911-1912, was performing quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven at the then-new Wisconsin Union Theater on the UW-Madison campus on May 10, 1940, when Belgium was overrun and occupied by Nazi forces, turning three of its original four musicians into war orphans.

By October of that year, the group had officially become the UW Pro Arte Quartet, making it the first artists ensemble-in-residence at any university in the world. At more than 100 years old, Pro Arte also is thought to be the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartet.

Pro Arte Quartet in 1928 Onnou far left

The Pro Arte in May traveled back to Belgium to perform the European premiere of its fifth centennial commissioned work, Belgian composer Benoît Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3. The work had received its world premiere on March 1 in Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus with the composer in attendance.

A 2-CD set (below) of the first four commissions was released last year by Albany Records. It includes two string quartets by Walter Mays and John Harbison as well as two piano quintets, one by William Bolcom and the other by Paul Schoenfield.

pro arte cd commission cover

 

 

 

 


Classical music: The University of Wisconsin Pro Arte Quartet in Belgium — Day 6: The quartet plays its final concert -– a midday concert in an old converted farm barn on a new campus in an old country. A reception and dinner follow. Then the quartet splits up, one member traveling on and the others departing for back home and braving U.S. customs.

June 1, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Editor’s note: The Well-Tempered Ear has asked people on tour with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) to file whatever dispatches. updates and photos are possible — from iPads, computers, cameras and smart phones — so that they can to keep the fans back here at home current with what is happening on the concert stage and off.

By now it has become apparent that the Pro Arte Quartet’s week-long tour of Belgium is as big an event to the Belgians and to local residents there as it is to Madisonians, Wisconsinites and alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

All week long, Sarah Schaffer, who manages the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte String Quartet, sent text and photo essays.

Current members are violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp.

Today’s Part 6 covers the final concert and events at the Belgian campus of Louvain-La-Neuve (LLN) and the return to the U.S.

Once again, ones sees that a concert tour keeps a frenetic pace loaded with hard work. A concert tour is no vacation!

If you want background or need to catch up, here links:

To Day 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/classical-music-the-university-of-wisconsin-pro-arte-quartet-lands-in-belgium-gets-detained-at-customs-and-is-rescued-in-time-for-practicing-and-playing-concerts/

To Day 2:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/classical-music-on-day-2-the-university-of-wisconsin-pro-arte-quartet-is-offered-rehearsal-time-in-a-bar-meets-descendants-of-the-original-members-of-the-quartet-and-performs-its-first-concert-to/

To Day 3:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/classical-music-on-day-3-in-belgium-the-university-of-wisconsin-pro-arte-quartet-plays-at-the-royal-library-gives-a-gift-to-king-philippe-and-keeps-performing-a-lot-of-hard-and-varied-music/

To Day 4, Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/classical-music-here-is-a-photo-essay-of-the-pro-arte-quartets-day-long-homage-stop-at-the-belgian-hometown-of-dolhain-linburg-of-the-groups-founding-violinist-alphonse-onnou/

To Day 4, Part 2:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/classical-music-the-pro-arte-quartet-in-belgium-day-4-part-2-the-quartet-performs-in-the-town-of-dolhain-limbourg/

To Day 5:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/classical-music-the-uw-pro-arte-quartet-in-belgium-day-5-the-belgian-premiere-of-a-belgian-work-at-the-royal-conservatory-draws-a-big-enough-crowd-to-run-out-of-programs-and-bring-three-c/

DAY 6: Sarah Schaffer (below) writes about the Last Day:

Sarah Schaffer mug

Louvain-la-Neuve

PAQ in Belgium LLN poster 1 SS

Disembarking the train from Bruxelles Centrale we were once again greeted by paparazzi on the platform — the inveterate translator Alain Boucart (below right holding camera, with tour organizer Anne van Malderen on the left) is always on hand, camera at the ready!

Pro Arte in Belgium Anne vcan Malderen, translator Alain Boucart

The university at Louvain-la-Neuve or LLN (below) was created from scratch, out of nothing, in 1976, a consequence of the language/culture split, Flemish-Walloon, in 1968.

The Dutch campus of this Catholic college remains in Louven, the new French campus here in Louvain. There are about 15,000 students, and a town of about 40,000 has grown up around it, all brand new, hence “neuve,” and something of a dissonance where everything else “belgique” has been “tres ancien.”

PAQ in Belgium Louvain la neuve

The campus was built literally out in the fields around the remains of four abandoned farms, at last explaining the curious name of the concert hall: La Ferme du Biereau.

PAQ in Belgium LLN farm hall exterrior 1 SS

PAQ in Belgium LLN farm hall exterior 2 SS

PAQ in Belgium farm hall exterior 3 SS

PAQ in Belgium farm hall etxerior 4 SS

It’s an old grange or barn, beautiful old timbers exposed in the renovation that transformed it into a concert hall with a surprisingly attractive acoustic; warm and forthcoming; invitingly beautiful and comfortable as well.

PAQ in Belgium LLN hall interior 1 SS

One of the students in audio engineering, Thomas Vanelstlande (below, with his assistant Marine Haitt), will be recording the concert as his final exam for the reception. The recording set-up is below bottom.

PAQ in Belgium LLN 2 recording engineers SS

PAQ in Belgium LLN hall recording setup 2 SS

The concert is one on the afternoon series sponsored by LLN , under the guidance of Guillaume Wunsch. Programs are offered every couple of weeks.

Again, the capacity audience brought an impressive attentiveness and concentration to Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s new work, String Quartet No. 3, which was commissioned by the Pro Arte Quartet for its historic centennial and which asks a lot on a first hearing.

Benoit Mernier 1

It is such a pleasure to be in the company of such intentional engagement. We’d thought the famous Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber a strange closer, coming after the Mernier, but it turns out to be in fact a rather appropriate coda.

PAQ in Belgium LLN program SS JPG

Happy for a chance to meet Benoit’s wife Helene (below with her husband beside her and his father in the background).  She reminds us she’s heard the piece once already, when it was streamed live from Wisconsin Public Radio on its “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” broadcast on March 2, at its Madison world premiere, and we once again mourn the loss — announced two weeks ago — of that distinguished statewide concert series.

PAQ in Belgium LLN Benoit Mernier and wife Helene plus father in bakgrd SS

We were alerted that a reception would follow the concert, and assumed the champagne in the lobby was it, appropriate for 2:30 in the afternoon.

What we were UN-prepared for was the formal lunch, for us and about 20 guests, that ensued.  It was a beautiful buffet, quite elaborate, with very nice wines. Many interesting conversations, many new friends, many promises to follow up and stay in touch.

PAQ in Belgium post-concert lunch at LLN with both Benoit Mernier's parents SS

And after THIS, we are ferried to Waterloo in cars, for a more private supper with Alain and Anne and the Prevost brothers (below, Michael Arthur on the left, Jean Marie on the right). Helene and Benoit Mernier, still not feeling well, and in fact now feverish, have to decline.  It is, in all, a very sweet closing to our time in Belgium.

PAQ in Belgium brothers Michael Arthur Prevost (left) and Jean Marie Prevost Sarah Shaffer

Many toasts and congratulations, but most thanks and special tribute to Anne, who put together this special week.  “I em veery ‘appy!” she tells me quietly.

Alain has purchased our train tickets, and Michel Arthur Prevost accompanies us to Brussels Centrale.  He has ambitious ideas for a return trip.

A CODA

It is over.

Parry went on to the UK for a couple of weeks of concerts. “Having a wonderful time in England,” he emails.

The rest of us parted company at the Brussels airport — three quartet members on United Airlines to Chicago, John and I went through Amsterdam.

BUT — and this is the coda to the dispatches:

Sally exited Belgium and returned to the US without incident.

The “fish” lady (the agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that enforces the CITES law about protecting endangered species) was waiting for her at O’Hare, whisked her through in 4 minutes, and even got her a shortcut through the lines and out to Van Galder. (She’d made appointment the required 48 hours ahead).

Below are her instrument “passport,”  her CITES documentation. It is readily accepted this time, unlike on our arrival in Belgium.

PAQ in Belgium LLN Sally CITES document 1 SS

PAQ in Belgium LLN Sally CITES document 2 SS

All goes smoothly.

Sally is so relieved.

I’ll see Sally today — we’re writing up the experience to be ready for an article and other inquiries — and will learn if she’s heard about Parry’s England entry. I’m guessing she has info. I guessing he was fine, with the “EU” stamp received in Belgium.

Thanks for keeping up with us while we zoomed around Belgium. It was extraordinary to be there with these musicians, and to feel the gravitas and all the promise of the incredible legacy they continue to carry on.

Pro Arte Quartet in 1928 Onnou far left

Pro Arte Quartet 1940 Brosa-Halleux-Prevost-Evans 1940

PAQ 9-2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Classical music: The UW Pro Arte Quartet in Belgium -– Day 5. The Belgian premiere of a Belgian composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels draws a big enough crowd to run out of programs and bring three curtain calls. A visit to the Royal Conservatory Library reveals the notebooks of Mozart’s wife Constanza and takes the quartet back to its roots for a performance. Plus, the Pro Arte gets recorded by Belgian TV and radio.

May 31, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Editor’s note: The Well-Tempered Ear has asked people on tour with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) to file whatever dispatches. updates and photos are possible — from iPads, computers, cameras and smart phones — so that they can to keep the fans back here at home current with what is happening on the concert stage and off. 

By now it has become apparent that the Pro Arte Quartet’s tour of Belgium is as big an event to the Belgians and to local residents there as it has been to Madisonians, Wisconsinites and alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Pro Arte Qartet  Overture Rick Langer

Just before taking a day’s rest, Sarah Schaffer (below), who manages the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte String Quartet, sent this text and this photo essay. They cover the return to Brussels from Dolhain Limbourg, the hometown of founding violinist Alphonse Onnou. Then the members of the quartet visited the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels where they toured the archives and library and also performed, including a rehearsal that was recorded for the national radio network.

Current members are violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp.

Sarah Schaffer mug 

Today’s Part 5 covers the extensive events at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where the frenetic pace just kept gathering speed. A concert tour is hard work, no glamorous vacation!

If you want background or need to catch up, here are links:

To Day 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/classical-music-the-university-of-wisconsin-pro-arte-quartet-lands-in-belgium-gets-detained-at-customs-and-is-rescued-in-time-for-practicing-and-playing-concerts/

To Day 2:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/classical-music-on-day-2-the-university-of-wisconsin-pro-arte-quartet-is-offered-rehearsal-time-in-a-bar-meets-descendants-of-the-original-members-of-the-quartet-and-performs-its-first-concert-to/

To Day 3:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/classical-music-on-day-3-in-belgium-the-university-of-wisconsin-pro-arte-quartet-plays-at-the-royal-library-gives-a-gift-to-king-philippe-and-keeps-performing-a-lot-of-hard-and-varied-music/

To Day 4, Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/classical-music-here-is-a-photo-essay-of-the-pro-arte-quartets-day-long-homage-stop-at-the-belgian-hometown-of-dolhain-linburg-of-the-groups-founding-violinist-alphonse-onnou/

To Day 4, Part 2:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/classical-music-the-pro-arte-quartet-in-belgium-day-4-part-2-the-quartet-performs-in-the-town-of-dolhain-limbourg/

Sarah Schaffer writes:

Today brought the Belgian premiere of Belgian composer Benoît Mernier’s Quartet No. 3, commissioned by Pro Arte Quartet for its centennial, a special commission harking back to its Belgian origins, in the very hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music where the founding quartet played countless times, both as students and after.

PAQ in Belgium Conservatory Hall 1

PAQ in Belgium Conservatory Hall 2

PAQ in Belgium Conservatory Hall 3

Engineers from musiq3, the French-speaking Belgian national radio, set up equipment and record the concert rehearsal for later broadcast. TV and newspapers have also covered the quartet.

PAQ in Belgium  Radio sets up in conservatory hall

PAQ in Belgium conservatory whole quartet and radio

PAQ in Belgium play in Conservatory before microphone

It was so perfectly appropriate, and so very moving: this hall, this city, this composer, this work, this audience of mainly students, all at the ages now that the original Pro Arte Quartet members (below) Onnou, Halleux, Prevost and Maas would have been back then.

Pro Arte Quartet in 1928 Onnou far left

There were so many concert attendees that the printed programs (below) ran out.

PAQ in Belgium Conservatory program for concert 1

PAQ in Belgium conservatory program old and new quartets

The short program included — after remarks from Anne van Malderen (below top) on the history of the quartet and an introduction of his work, with examples played by PAQ, by Messieur Mernier (below bottom): Mernier’s Third Quartet, the Adagio and Fugue, K. 546, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, American composer Randall Thompson‘s “Wind in the Willows” and the famous Adagio for Strings from the String Quartet No. 1 by American composer Samuel Barber.

PAQ in Belgium conservatory hall  5 Anne van Malderen welcome

PAQ in Belgium conservatory hall 6 Benoit Mernier talks

Applause called the PAQ back to the stage three times.

PAQ in Belgium bows 1 at conservatory SS

PAQ in Belgium Bows at conservatory USE 2

Our visit to the Conservatoire began earlier in the day with a tour by librarian Olivia Wahnon (below).

PAQ in Belgium Library 1 at conservatory

This distinguished archival collection contains the most manuscript holdings among all Belgian libraries, and she had prepared for our benefit some beautiful displays of rare materials.

PAQ in Belgium Conservatory library mss.

Some of what we saw was related to the Pro Arte and string quartets. There were many manuscript scores and parts, particularly from the collection of second violinist Laurent Halleaux, and many concert programs.

PAQ in Belgium Library quartet scores

But not everything was about PAQ! We see a Medieval handbook manuscript of chant:

PAQ in Belgium Library Medieval non-PAQ stuff 3

We also had a glimpse of Constanze Mozart’s diary (below, in a photo by Sally Chisholm, you can see it is multilingual, and contains many beautiful drawings and paintings), a page of manuscript by Franz Liszt, and the teensiest, tiniest bound volume of Medieval manuscripts. Such treasures! Constanza wrote about her husband Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Husband genius. Still poor.”

PAQ in Belgium Constanza Mozart's notebook in Royal  Conservatory Library CR Sally

For us, the division of the institution into two nationalities—Flemish and Walloon—seems somewhat incomprehensible and impossible to manage and navigate. Yet it is so much the history and culture of the whole country, especially evident after yesterday’s elections, it is simply taken in stride.

Although the whole infrastructure (below are photos of the conservatory’s exterior) is in a state of dilapidation—built in the mid-19th century, with a major renovation planned beginning in 2015 — it was in its way more touching and meaningful to see it now, while we can more easily imagine how it looked and felt when the first Quatuor Pro Arte (QPA) inhabited its halls and spaces a century ago.

PAQ in Belgium Conservatory exterior 2

PAQ in Belgium conservatory exterior 3

PAQ in Belgium conservatory exterior 4 photo 3

Composer Benoit Mernier (below top, applauding the Pro Arte Quartet, and below bottom) reports he is well pleased with the progress that he hears in the playing of his piece, from its world premiere March 1 in Madison to now, just 2-1/2 months later. He hears the players inhabiting the work more: details are more precise; at the same time they bring more fluidity; and the overall arc and shape are now more convincingly presented.

PAQ in Belgium Mernier applauds

Benoit Mernier 1

One more chance to improve even more at the final concert tomorrow at the university in Louvain-la-Neuve.

Tomorrow: Our last day and final concert, at Louvain-la-Neuve. The week has sped by.

 

 

 

 

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Classical music: Is this the minority report of a dissenter? The Ear offers some thoughts and after-thoughts from recent concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Pro Arte String Quartet, the Middleton Community Orchestra and pianist Christopher Taylor. Plus, here are links to rave reviews of this afternoon’s final all-Beethoven concert by pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 9, 2014
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ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center is the final performance of the all-Beethoven concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. It features pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) in TWO piano concertos (Nos. 2 and 5 “The Emperor”) plus the Symphony No. 1 and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture. Here are links to two rave reviews of the concert by Madison Magazine critic and blogger Greg Hettmansberger and by Isthmus critic John W. Barker, who also guest blogs for The Ear. It sure sounds like a NOT-TO-BE-MISSED concert. See you there!

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2014/A-Piano-Concerto-Doubleheader-and-Beethoven-to-the-Max/

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42237

Yefim Bronfman portrait

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a very busy time musically in Madison, with a lot of previews to post, which often supplant reviews since The Ear thinks previews are more useful than reviews to most listeners and performers. And this coming week and weekend are even worse. So much music, and so little space!

But here are some “outdated” capsule reviews, impressions really, with accompanying afterthoughts that come to The Ear as he listened and later thought about what he had heard:

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND TRUMPETER TINE THING HELSETH

It seemed a curious, even odd theme for a Valentine’s Day program. But BRASS – not romantic love — marked the Valentine’s Day weekend performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), although ending with the “Rosenkavalier” suite by Richard Strauss did indeed prove an inspired choice to combine brass and love. Plus by all accounts, the concert sold very well. It sure got standing ovations. In short, it may have seemed odd, but it worked.

MSO playing

The “Doctor Atomic” Symphony by the contemporary American composer John Adams (below), who put the instrumental work together from his own opera score, was powerful, and also fit the brass bill, with great solos by MSO trumpeter John Aley, and was impressive to hear –- though also hardly romantic.

John Adams

Given conductor John DeMain (below) and his stupendous taste and talent for choosing great singers who are also affordable, I kept thinking: How I would like to have heard some great singers perform familiar and unknown love arias from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Saint-Saens, even Wagner. Now those would be symphony tickets to throw in with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses. But The Ear has been informed that such concerts often do not sell well and might also be seen as competing with the local opera company.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

All that said, I thought that the guest soloist, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (below), proved an inspired, if unexpected, choice. She showed an uncanny power for playing softly. Brass instruments are not easy to control with little breath and with soft tone. But she did both beautifully in two concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and Alexander Arutiunian. She clearly has the lung power to blow down the Walls of Jericho. But what impressed and seduced me was her quietness, which nonetheless possessed rich tone and unwavering pitch. That is a rare talent, and one to be cherished — and brought back to Madison!

Tine Thing Helseth big profile

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has a never-failing knack of finding terrific music that has been overlooked but is actually very good, if not revolutionary or pioneering.

Sure, at his last concert I too, like the rest of the audience, loved what he did with the Jupiter Symphony of Mozart –- not too hectic, clear voicing, propulsive energy even with all the repeats. And the talented and congenial soloist Joshua Roman proved an irresistible highlight in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major.

Andrew Sewell BW

But the real surprise of the night was the 20th-century Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below), who taught composition at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and then established the North Carolina School of the Arts. What a discovery! I want to hear more by this guy.

Vittorio Giannini

And Sewell will soon unwrap another surprise this week –- and I expect, as usual, that it will be modern music that is accessible and tuneful, not R&D Music (that’s short research and development) that sounds like jet noise or broken plumbing.  Could that help explain why he gets full houses?

Sewell and the WCO will probably do so again THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. That is when he and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra combine the famous famously listenable and lovely Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Karina Canellakis) by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony (Symphony No. 101 of his 104 symphonies) with “Elements” by American composer Michael McLean (below, and with a sample of  “Elements” in a YouTube video at the bottom). Sounds like another MUST-HEAR concert  to The Ear.

Michael McLean 1 REAL not mormon

PRO ARTE QUARTET

Well, the headlines and chit-chat went rightfully to the world premiere of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s commissioned String Quartet No. 3, which sounded fiendishly difficult and seemed based largely on technical stuff like trills, tremolos and glissandos instead of themes and infectious rhythms. And the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music since 1940 and celebration its centennial, played it with impressive aplomb and apparent ease.

Pro Arte Quartet in Haydn at Mernier

“Do you like the music?” someone asked me right after the performance.

I think the better question is: “Does the music like me?”

Think about it: What is the composer’s responsibility to you the listener, and what is your responsibility to the composer (Mernier, below), especially if he seems to ignore you?

Benoit Mernier 1

I also loved the rarely heard and beautifully performed viola quintet by Anton Bruckner and particularly the contrasts between Sally Chisholm’s viola and Samuel Rhodes’ viola (the two are below side-by-side). If you liked the combination –- and what is not to like with the darker hued voice of the viola –- be sure to try the viola quintets by Mozart and Brahms, which I would also like to hear the Pro Arte do more of.

Sally Chisholm and Samuel Rhodes in Bruckner Quintet

But for old-fashioned me, the star of the evening was the Haydn Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4. It just cleaned out your ears and was proof again that, at its best, the genre is indeed still as it was described by Haydn himself when pretty much invented in the 18th century: A conversation of equals. And did the Pro Arte ever play it with accuracy, clarity and texture. It sparkled like a diamond. The string quartet may have evolved, changed or morphed over the centuries, but it has simply not gotten any better than Haydn.

So: Is there any chance that we night get of a multi-year Haydn cycle by the Pro Arte, which decades ago in another avatar or configuration of players started to record the complete Haydn quartets in the famous Abbey Road studio in London for RCA. They have done Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles. What about Papa Haydn? And if not a complete cycle of the 68 or so quartets, how about a fairly comprehensive survey or at least a very large sampler of Haydn’s early, middle and late styles?

Haydn

PIANIST CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR

What more can you say about the award-winning, audience-approved star talent pianist Christopher Taylor (below) who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and concertizes around the world, and his stunning solo recital this year?

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

I loved the “War” Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a great piece that he performed greatly with both riveting energy and heartbreaking lyricism. I also loved the encore — Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” –- as a contrast and change of pace.

But I have to be honest: I have heard enough of the Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Trust the genuine original! Accept no substitutes!

The next day I listened to a recording of the same work by a real orchestra — the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig under conductor Riccardo Chailly. What a difference when the “Eroica” is played with real brass countering, with jarring dissonance, real strings; when it is real tympani drumbeats rather than bass tremolos on the piano. Ludwig (below) simply had more of IT – whatever musical genius is — than Franz.

Beethoven big

The real “Eroica” Symphony doesn’t — and shouldn’t — sound so much like a Hungarian Rhapsody or a Transcendental Etude. In their day, these transcriptions served a purpose and they stretched the resources of the piano, or at least, of pianists. Now, they strike The Ear as precious, more of a sideshow of amazing and ingenious pianism and not much little else aside from some strokes of minor genius here and there by the Paganini of the Piano.

Liszt photo by Pierre Petit

From one of those transcriptions I learned something and I enjoyed it. But now that makes three down (symphonies numbers 3, 4 and 5) for Taylor. I, for one, sure hope we don’t have the other six to go. How much more I would have preferred to hear this supremely talented pianist and gifted musician in some serious and original piano repertoire –- maybe a late Schubert sonata, or a Bach partita, or a Chopin ballade, or a Schumann cycle. I want to hear Christopher Taylor in something that puts depth over display, substance over style.

Am I alone in that wish?

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

Guest reviewer John W. Barker covered this recent concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below), which featured music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thoughtfully and thoroughly for this blog.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

All I would add is a lesson that every teacher knows: Students with lesser abilities rise to meet high expectations. That is why symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras should book the best soloists they can get and afford: The Ear is convinced that the level of playing and performing usually rises to match the soloist and fosters cohesion.

With the MCO, it was two lifelong friends and award-winning, UW-Madison trained string players -– violinist Eleanor Bartsch and violist Daniel Kim (below) who soloed and who seemed in complete synch, down to the timing of their trills, during Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante.

Their playing was superb, and the amateur orchestra rose to meet them and give them the beautiful support they deserved. And with Mozart there is no place to hide, so flaws or mistakes are quickly revealed.

Eleanor Bartsch and Daniel Kim MCO Mozart

Well, now it is on to another busy week of concerts.

Where, I wonder, will the music lead The Ear this time?

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Classical music: John W. Barker says the world premiere of the new string quartet by Belgian composer Benoit Mernier proved a memorable, satisfying and successful way to celebrate the centennial of the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte Quartet, as does the rarely heard String Quintet of Anton Bruckner.

March 5, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

This past week witnessed the fifth in the projected six events in the centennial celebration for the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer; event photos are by The Ear), which has served as artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1940, when its members were stranded here by World War II and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi invasion of their homeland Belgium.  For me, it proved the most satisfying centennial event yet.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

Here full disclosure is necessary. I am a member of the committee that has been planning all of these celebrations, under the diligent leadership of Sarah Schaffer. Accordingly, the piece that follows has more of a personal reminiscence than an objective distance.

Each of the events is focused on a composer who has been commissioned to write a piece for the Pro Arte Quartet. The first four resulting works were given their premieres, under the supervision of the individual composers, during the course of the 2011-12 season. (The PAQ performances of these four works have now appeared in a 2-CD set from the Albany label.)  The fifth premiere had to be deferred from last autumn, and finally came about on Saturday night in Mills Hall.

pro arte cd commission cover

Whereas the previous four composers were all Americans, it was felt that the remaining ones should have Belgian connections, in view of the initial PAQ’s origins in that country.  After much scouting, the choice was given to Benoit Mernier (below, in a photo by Bernard Coutant), who is a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium.

benoit mernier by bernard coutant

Born in 1964, Mernier has rapidly emerged as one of the pre-eminent composers in Belgium today, perhaps the leading one.  The hallmark of his output as a composer is his range and versatility. He has composed three operas — a scene of his opera “La Dispute,” based on a play by Pierre de Marivaux, is in a YouTube video at bottom — and he says he loves writing for voices in settings of poetry.  He has also written widely for choral, chamber and orchestral media. He studied both organ and harpsichord, and is himself an accomplished performing organist, composing extensively for the instrument.

His commission, funded by both the Pro Arte Quartet and the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, has resulted in his String Quartet No. 3, completed last year.  He arrived in Madison early last week, flying directly from Belgium, to supervise the work’s premiere. He established an immediate and cordial rapport with his hosts here. He had warned that his command of English was poor, but he soon disproved that in quite workable facility (with occasional help from local Francophones).

Above all, he plunged into work with the PAQ with zest.  The group had been working on his score for weeks before, by contrast with some groups with which he has worked, groups still struggling to master his music.  As a result, our four players were fully in command of the quartet, so that Mernier (below) could move beyond technical drilling and concentrate on their expression of his ideas.

Benoit Mernier by Lise Mernier

I sat in on a three-hour “public” rehearsal in Mills Hall on Thursday, Feb. 27, and was fascinated to see Mernier bustle about in constant consultation with the players as he polished their mastery of the work. Lithe, energetic, spontaneous, he is a bundle of energy and insight.

In addition, he has an open, unforced, and vivacious personality that makes working with him a great delight.  In numerous social and planning contacts, he was bubbly, engaged company.  Indeed, my perception was that he conveyed to all of us not only his music but also that very outgoing personality itself

Mernier had a chance to go along with the quartet members for an “out-of-town tryout”, a so-called “pre-premiere” of his quartet as part of a full concert in Prairie du Sac last Friday evening. Then, the next evening its program was given for the official world premiere.

It was a truly rich menu, beginning with Haydn’s early Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4, a little microcosm all its own; then came the new Mernier Quartet; and, finally, Anton Bruckner’s expansive String Quintet.

So, how was the new Mernier work?  Well, it seems perhaps thorny music at first encounter, although it did receive a prolonged standing ovation (below, with members of the quartet and the composer standing second from right ).  Long gone are traditional structural forms and lush melodies.  But it is a very thoughtfully and skillfully composed piece of about 25 minutes in length.  It is cast in nine movements of varying length, interrelated in ideas and ultimately cohering into a comprehensive structure.

Benoit Mernier with Pro Arte Quartet and standing ovation

Before the concert, in a “conversation” onstage (below, which—full disclosure again — I moderated) Mernier discussed the sonic elements, the “signposts” that he used recurrently in putting together the whole piece.

Benoit Mernier at Q&A with John W. Barker

Met honestly, the score has a logic and even power to it that one might compare to Bela Bartók’s quartets — and we have all caught up with those by now, haven’t we? I had worried that the latest blizzard that day would result in an empty house.  But Mills was packed with people, and they gave an enthusiastic, and justified, standing ovation to Mernier and the PAQ players.

Pro Arte Quartet Mernier good house

For my part, I think I have found this Mernier Quartet the most musically satisfying of all the commissioned works presented so far.

The concert program, minus the Haydn, was repeated the following day at the midday presentation of “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” a concert open to the public and broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio.

But, if as an epilogue, I must point out the performance of the work by Bruckner (below) was an event in itself.  This involves one of only two substantial chamber works composed by Bruckner, better known for massive and grandly architectural symphonies for large orchestra. 

Completed in 1879, between his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, this is an extensive (one should not say “sprawling”) work, calling for a second viola as the fifth instrument.  Composed in the same format and style as symphonic works of Bruckner (below), this score might almost be understood as the blueprint for a kind of mini-symphony by the composer.

Anton Bruckner 2

The performance by the PAQ, their first address to it, was for me another reminder of the value of experiencing in a “live performance” a work I have known only from recordings.

Pro Arte Quartet playing Bruckner

Being able to watch the players in action helps to understand the writing. I realized for the first time, for example, just how much of a prominent role is accorded to the first viola in the string texture here. And in this performance, that role was vividly fulfilled by a guest player, Samuel Rhodes (below) of the Juilliard School , who recently retired from the Juilliard String Quartet and remains one of the country’s leading violists, and a good friend of many of the PAQ players.

Samuel Rhodes photo by Peter Schaaf (lower res.)

Also, I could observe clearly how Bruckner, in this chamber writing, treated the two violins and the two violas (below, Sally Chisholm on the left and Samuel Rhodes on the right) as distinct entities, variously using them in either interplay or opposition, while the cello receded to pizzicato rhythms, or dropped out entirely. Such are the revelations that direct personal experience of performances allow!

Sally Chisholm and Samuel Rhodes in Bruckner Quintet

In all, then, a truly wonderful event this centennial concert proved to be a truly wonderful event.  And there is still one more, with the world premiere of a Clarinet Quintet by French-Canadian composer Pierre Jalbert (below) next September, with another delightful pre-concert dinner (below) and art tour in the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art scheduled to take place.

Pierre Jalbert

Mernier dinner at Chazen Museum

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Classical music: Under guest conductor Kevin McMahon of Sheboygan, the Middleton Community Orchestra rises to guest string soloists Daniel Kim and Eleanor Bartsch in Mozart, then warms up the winter with colorful Rimsky-Korsakov and lyrical Brahms.

February 28, 2014
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ALERT and REMINDER: Just a reminder that the Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program features the WORLD PREMIERE of the quartet’s fifth of six commissions to mark its centennial. (Also on the work is Franz Jospeh Haydn’s Quartet, Op. 20, Np. 4, and Anton Bruckner’s Viola Quintet with guest Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard School and formerly of the Juilliard String Quartet.) The new work is the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoit Mernier, who is in Madison to coach the quartet and attend the premiere, where he will be interviewed by John W. Barker preceding the concert at 7:15 p.m. And here is a link to a review of the new CD recording (below) of the first four commissions by Greg Hettmansberger, who writes Madison Magazine’s classical music blog “Classically Speaking.”

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/February-2014/Pro-Arte-Quartets-New-CDs-Renew-a-Legacy/

pro arte cd commission cover

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The third program in the current season of the Middleton Community Orchestra (below), on Wednesday night at the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, was a rich and ambitious one.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

For this concert, the regular MCO conductor Steve Kurr retired modestly to the viola and percussion sections, and yielded the podium to a visiting maestro, Kevin McMahon (below), a University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music alumnus who directs the Sheboygan Symphony.

Kevin McMahon MCO

Of three works on the program, the first was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. Well-known, especially from many recordings, the work is in fact rarely performed in concerts, perhaps because of the demand for two soloists of high and equal merit.

In this case, it got them.

Local violin star Eleanor Bartsch and Juilliard-trained violist Daniel Kim of New York City — but both distinguished and prize-winning former students in the UW School of Music — have known each other since childhood. They were clearly on a shared wavelength in this performance, paired beautifully in music that makes one glad to be alive. (At bottom, you can hear a popular YouTube recording of the work with violinist Itzhak Perlman and violist Pinchas Zukerman under the baton of Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.)

Eleanor Bartsch and Daniel Kim MCO Mozart

The orchestra, a sturdy accompanist in the Mozart, came into its own in the next piece, the flashy “Capriccio espagnol” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (below).  It is really a short five-movement concerto for orchestra, showing off a kaleidoscope of colors, and demanding a performance of virtuosic capacity.

Rimsky-Korsakov

Clearly, guest maestro McMahon had drilled the orchestra thoroughly, so that the performance was a stellar achievement for the MCO. And it also gave the concertmaster, Alice Bartsch, sister of the violin soloist in the Mozart, her own opportunities for some brilliant solo moments.

Alice Bartsch MCO concertmaster

Finally came the longest work of the night, the Symphony No. 2 in D Major of Johannes Brahms (below).

brahms3

This is perhaps the most genial of the composer’s four symphonies, but its lyricism conceals some challenging demands made on the orchestra.  Brahms requires absolute perfection of technique and fully polished sonorities. And so, precisely because it is a very well-known score, it really puts an orchestra like the MCO to the test.

The group met the test quite creditably. Perhaps out of mercy, McMahon dropped the first-movement repeat. He had some very good ideas about phrasing and nuances throughout, and the players worked hard to put them to good effect.

Indeed, the performance gave one a chance to assess the community orchestra’s progress in no more than its fourth season of existence.

Well, there are still concerns to be faced. There are rough elements in the brass playing, but the woodwinds provide a secure and reliable anchor for the orchestra. The strings still lack that full sheen we might crave, but they are growing in security and discipline, especially the violins.

And so, after not that much time in the growing yet, music director and usual conductor Steve Kurr (below) has succeeded in building the MCO into a treasure for the city of Middleton and a genuine asset to the musical life of the Madison area. It deserves all possible support and encouragement — and attendance.

Steve Kurr conducting

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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players of Madison explain and explore the demanding and original horn trios by Johannes Brahms and Gyorgy Ligeti. Now if the musicians can only get the word out and reach the audience they deserve. Plus, on Thursday morning, WORT-FM will preview the FREE world premiere concert on Saturday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the Pro Arte Quartet.

February 25, 2014
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ALERT: Our blog friend and radio host Rich Samuels at WORT-FM 89.9 writes: “On this Thursday, Feb. 27, I’ll be playing the following items which should help publicize the FREE concert this coming Saturday night by the Pro Arte Quartet . It takes place at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall and features an early quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn and a viola quintet by Anton Bruckner — with guest violist Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard School and the Juilliard String Quartet — as well as the WORLD PREMIERE of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3. The program should also help publicize the FREE open rehearsal wight he composer that same Thursday morning in Mills Hall from 9 a.m. to noon.

Here is the schedule of my 5-8 a.m. show “Anything Goes”: at 7:10 a.m. — the original Pro Arte Quartet’s December, 1933 recording of the final movement of the quartet by Maurice Ravel; at 7:18 a.m. — the present-day Pro Arte Quartet (below) and its recording (with UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor) of the final movement of William Bolcom‘s Piano Quintet No. 2, which was commissioned by the Pro Arte, performed and recorded for its centennial celebration two seasons ago; and at 7:25 a.m. — Invention No. 1 from Benoit Mernier’s “Five Inventions for Organ” (with the composer performing). I had to choose short selections because we’re in a pledge drive on Feb. 27, which mandates a certain amount of on-air fundraising.”

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took the performance photos. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Mosaic Chamber Players is a group of instrumentalists in the area who enjoy performing chamber works for a public that still needs to grow and appreciate the players and programs.

On Saturday night, three members of the group presented two examples of the rare idiom of trio for piano, violin and horn — the one by Johannes Brahms (1865), which was the trail-blazer in the idiom, and the one by the modern Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (below, 1923-2006), composed in 1982 as a tribute to the older composer.

gyorgy ligeti

The Ligeti work was given first, and a very sensible touch was to have a little background presentation on it by Sarah Schaffer, who is also a cellist with the Mosaic group.

Having the players contribute actual examples of passages in the Ligeti score, Schaffer (below) did a fine job of sketching the background of the composer and work, and demonstrating the thematic and motivic ideas out of which Ligeti crafted his work with such considerable skill.

It is, to be sure, a thorny work, tremendously demanding on the players, and posing obstacles of an arcane style on the listeners. But Schaffer’s lecture was most helpful. In this trio Ligeti was, after all, playing the avant-gardist taking on classical forms.

Sarah Schaffer on Mosaic Ligeti

The work is in essentially the same four-movement format as the Brahms, echoing the latter, but in Ligeti’s own terms. Listeners can gradually get their bearings. I, for one, came to appreciate the Lamento finale as packed with very moving beauty. (You can hear that finale in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The style of Brahms (below) 117 years earlier is, of course, much more congenial to our ears, even if this trio is not that often performed. It also contrasts directly with Ligeti’s counterpart work in its rationale.

Whereas Ligeti pits the three players against each other, as veritable opponents, Brahms treats them as collaborators and partners.  He retains their individuality: the muscularity of the piano, the sweetness of the violin, and the horn’s rugged suggestion of the forests and the hunt.  And yet, the power of the horn is tamed, and made to consort comfortably with the violin, under the piano’s firm supervision.

brahms3

The performers (below) were members of the group founded by pianist Jess Salek, who was joined in these two trios by violinist Laura Burns and hornist Brad Sinner. They had invested a good three months in working on the Ligeti, I was told, and their mastery of this very tricky score showed how deeply they had come to understand and appreciate it.  (Its difficulties were highlighted by the use of not one but two page-turners for the players.)

The spirit with which they tackled it was appropriately transferred to the Brahms, in a rousing performance.

Mosaic Chamber Players horn trios

Barely over 30 people attended the concert, held in the historic old Landmark auditorium in the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison. The Mosaic Players will return there on Sunday evening, June 8, for a concert of Cesar Franck and Franz Schubert.  I certainly will be there.  Why not you, too? 

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