The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Could a new ivory protection law derail the Pro Arte Quartet’s tour to Belgium in May? Don’t miss the Pro Arte’s FREE preview concert of the MUST-HEAR program for its “Back to Belgium” tour on Thursday night at 7:30. Plus, a terrific new one-hour documentary about the Pro Arte airs Thursday night at 9 and other times on Wisconsin Public Television.

April 16, 2014
2 Comments

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that some reviews of productions last weekend are being delayed to make room for previews of the many upcoming concerts and musical events this week.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear hears:

The Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) may well be prevented from taking its long-planned centennial tour to its homeland Belgium next month because of a seemingly small but very significant government regulation designed to curtail the trade in illegal ivory.

Pro Arte Qartet  Overture Rick Langer

Now, who can argue with the intent to protect elephants from being poached for their ivory tusks? But clearly there are unintended consequences that make the humane regulation look absurd and silly, if not mean-spirited, in its requirements for out-of-date documentation.

Take the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Music since 1940. It turns out that the acclaimed string quartet may not make its long-planned centennial tour to Belgium next month -– depending on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, with the help of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), inspects and confiscates or destroys musical instruments it deems in possible violation of the law at U.S. customs.

As for how it applies to the Pro Arte Quartet: It seems that ivory inlay on one old instrument –- a beautiful and full voiced viola -– and the ivory used in the tips of bows for one or more of the old instruments may violate the new ban and regulation.

ivory on bow tip

It that seems an exaggeration consider the following stories about the difficulties that other musicians and other countries have faced in confronting the situation:

Here is a link to an overview story on NPR:

http://www.npr.org/2014/04/07/300267040/musicians-take-note-your-instrument-may-be-contraband

The problem is not so much getting out of the U.S., since other countries are taking a more lenient or understanding view. The problem comes at U.S. Customs when you leave or even, and especially, return.

Here is the story about one Canadian musician is being held hostage from seeking a professional job by the ban. Be sure to view the video:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/u-s-ivory-ban-makes-musician-cancel-winnipeg-audition-1.2609434

Here is the take by famed critic Norman Lebrecht on his classical music blog “Slipped Disc:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2014/03/new-threat-to-musical-instruments-entering-the-usa.html

As for the Pro Arte: People are reportedly working behind the scenes to secure a solution, which ranges from getting an exemption to using either a substitute instrument or a substitute player, to cancelling the tour. Stay tuned.

ivory on 2 bows

But while you stay tuned you have two chances tonight to hear the Pro Arte:

Thursday night at 9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television’s main channel is the extremely we’ll done one-hour documentary about the Pro Arte and its Centennial celebration will air. It features great photos and historic footage, but it also features the quartet playing a studio concert of music by Darius Milhaud, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ernest Bloch, Samuel Barber (the famous “Adagio for Strings” that was originally a string quartet movement and that received its world premiere in Rome from the Pro Arte) and contemporary composer John Harbison. (Other airings are also scheduled. Here is a link:

http://www.wptschedule.org/episodes/45015629/The-Pro-Arte-Quartet-A-Century-of-Music/

But you can record that on a DVD or some other device. And here are other times on The Wisconsin Channel (21.2). The airdates are: April 18 at 8 p.m.; April 19 at 2 a.m.; and April 19 at 5 p.m. In addition, WPT will be offering this documentary program via web-streamibng at the same time as the broadcast, so people can see it globally. The link to the program page, on which the streaming link is also housed, is http://wptschedule.org/episodes/45015629/The-Pro-Arte-Quartet-A-Century-of-Music/

 

Here is the real treat: At 7:30 p.m. on this Thursday night in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet -– playing its own instruments — will perform a FREE MUST-HEAR concert of the same program that was requested by the Belgian hosts for whom they will play. Consider it a warm-up or run-through.

ProArte 2010 3

The program features one the Ear’s top all-time favorite string quartets: the so-called “Dissonant” Quartet, K. 465 (1785) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which was so advanced in its harmonies that early publishers actually changed some of the opening notes that Mozart wrote to make the work conform to the practices of the day. (The opening that gives it its nickname can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also includes the Quartet No. 1 (1909) by the pioneering modernist Bela Bartok (below top), and the Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2, (1837) by the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn.

In its blend of the Classical, the Romantic and the Modern repertoire, the program seems quintessentially Pro Arte. And it should be a pure joy to hear.

Members of the current Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer and with links to biographies) are:Parry Karp, cello; Suzanne Beia, second violin; 
Sally Chisholm, viola; and 
David Perry, first violin.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

If didn’t already know it, here is a capsule history of the quartet:

The Pro Arte Quartet was founded in 1911-12 by students at the Brussels Conservatory. Violinist Alphonse Onnou was the leader, and the other founding members included Laurent Halleux (violin), Germain Prévost (viola), and Fernand Auguste Lemaire (cello). The quartet made its debut in Brussels in 1913 and soon became known as an exponent of modern music.

The Pro Arte played their American debut in 1926, performing at the inauguration of the Hall of Music in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. They returned for 30 tours to the United States, as well as a tour of Canada, often under the auspices of the noted patron of chamber music, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

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

Their first visit to Madison was in 1938, where, two years later, the musicians were stranded by Hitler’s invasion of Belgium and the outbreak of World War II. Following their concert on campus, the University of Wisconsin chancellor offered a permanent home to the quartet.

It was the first such residency ever in a major American university, and became the model on which many other similar arrangements were developed at other institutions.

Onnou died in 1940, but the quartet continued until 1947 as quartet-in-residence at Wisconsin University, led first by Antonio Brosa and from 1944 by Rudolf Kolisch.

The Pro Arte became the faculty string quartet at UW-Madison in the late 1950s, an appointment that continues to the present day -– making the ensemble more than 100 years old, the oldest on-going string quartet ever in history.

 

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Classical music: Being a professional classical musician takes more than having talent, good stage nerves and the ability to play the right notes.

March 26, 2013
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Spring break has begun at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at most public schools in and around Madison.

That means that the active concert life at the UW and other local presenters has taken a short break or intermission.

And that, in turn, means that I can catch up on some things – comments, reviews, non-local stories – that got pushed aside to make way for the ever busier schedule of live classical music events in the Madison area.

One of the things that I meant to blog about earlier is the lesson that I received from a couple of outstanding local events: The lesson that it takes more than talent, good stage nerves and playing the right notes to make a professional career in music.

One similar expression of that came recently from a blog by pianist Stephen Hough (below), who has performed several time sin Madison, from his comments about his life between concerts and from comments by his readers. Here is a link:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100068438/solitude-among-the-phantom-nuances/

Hough_Stephen_color16

And you can Google to find other stories about life behind the scenes for concert musicians. That was one reason the recent movies “A Late Quartet” (below) and “Quartet” were so enjoyable.

A Late Quartet frontal

I also posted about this when the acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk. (Denk, below) returns to Madison on April 11 to perform Bartok, Liszt, Bach and Beethoven in a Mills Hall recital for the Wisconsin Union Theater series.)

Denk came here and lectured at the UW School of Music, gave a blog panel, and performed a massive recital of Charles Ives and J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations at the Wisconsin Union Theater two seasons ago. He performed this despite having his computer, with many notes for his acclaimed blog (“Think Denk”) and terrific lectures, stolen from backstage.

But Denk gamely went on as of nothing happened and delivered the goods in spades. I don’t know if I could have summoned that kind of concentration after that kind of upsetment. In fact, I am almost certain I could NOT have.

Jeremy Denk playing 2

This semester I can think of two other examples, although I am sure there are more I don’t know about.

On Feb. 9 the acclaimed and unconventional Brooklyn-based freelance chamber orchestra The Knights (below) and pipa virtuoso Wu Man played an outstanding concert (below) marking the Chinese New Year in Mills Hall for the Wisconsin Union Theater, which is closed for renovation.

the knights 1

Yet they arrived only 70 minutes before they went on stage.

They had unexpectedly caught a last-minute flight out of New York, despite a snowstorm (or snow “event” as TV weather forecasters have taken to calling it) and went to Milwaukee, where a chartered bus picked them up and brought them to Madison.

But it all happened so fast and unpredictably. So unsure were things that even the presenters were making contingency plans for cancelling the event.

But they all arrived and went on stage where they stood to play Debussy, Stravinsky and Milhaud as well as a pipa concerto by American composer Lou Harrison and a pipa work composed by Wu Man. Via cell phone, the players en route had asked that cookies and milk be provided after the concert for them (they hadn’t eaten or had a chance to rest) and for the rest of the audience.

That happened, and the music combined with the socializing make for an unforgettable event.

That kind of devotion, of going with flow no matter how discouraging, is what being a professional musician is all about. No excuses were made. The Knights and Wu Man just kept their composure, put the music first and played their hearts out – and the audience, including The Ear, was most grateful and appreciative.

The Knights and Wu Man in Mills Hall Feb. 9 2013

Also in February, the distinguished German cellist Alban Gerhardt performed a terrific and terrifically difficult Prokofiev piece (the “Sinfonia Concertante”) with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain, who himself turned in a terrifically vital performance of Beethoven’s rarely heard Symphony No. 4.

But Gerhardt (below) too faced obstacles that turned out to be a demonstration of his cool professionalism.

alban gerhardt

Normally, he said, it takes about 12 hours to get from his home in Berlin, Germany to Madison. But he was rerouted due to airplane difficulties, and it took him twice as long –- about 24 hours – as normal.

In fact, he was late for his won first rehearsal. But he came directly from the airport and wandered into Overture Hall and picked up where someone else had started on his place. That was on Thursday night. Then came the actual performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday -– and he performed up to the level we all expected and that had been advertised by the symphony.

Alban Gerhardt playing 2

But travel and fatigue weren’t the only problems.

Add in some personal heartbreak. The Transportation Security Authorities at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C broke his $20,000 cello bow (below) in some careless manner while they inspected and then closed his cello case. He later discovered they had also damaged his cello.

The incident even made national and international news. Here are links:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2013/feb/12/cellists-bow-damaged/

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/02/a-second-shock-for-alban-gerhardt-airport-security-broke-my-cello-too.html

http://www.thestrad.com/article.asp?articleid=2524

http://www.opposingviews.com/i/entertainment/tsa-damages-cellist-alban-gerhardts-20000-bow

Alban Gerhardt broken cello bow

That kind of  unexpected loss has to hurt, especially when so much of the life of a touring musician is based on routine and things going as planned.

But neither the travel delay nor the broken bow – he borrowed one from a symphony cellist – interfered with his absolutely first-rate performance.

Talk about remaining cool, calm and collected!

Anyway, both concerts were wonderful events that I did not review because space was needed for other previews. (Each would have received a rave.) But I did want to praise not only the performances, but the sheer perseverance of great and thoroughly professional musicians who are anything but temperamental divas.

And then this past week, the up-and-coming New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) stepped in a again — the second time in three years — to substitute for Anne-Marie McDermott as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He got the call Tuesday afternoon and by Friday night was in Madison, had rehearsed the scheduled work (Mozart’s great Piano Concerto in C Minor) and delivered a first-rate performance.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Do you know of similar stories to share with readers and non-musicians or especially amateur musicians who might reassess whether they really ever wished to be professional touring concert artists?

The Ear wants to hear.


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