Madison's Pro Arte Quartet paid tribute to its Belgian roots on Sunday by premiering a new work by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier. This composition, Quartet No. 3, was commissioned for the ensemble's centennial celebration.
On May 10, 1940, Pro Arte's original members were performing at the Wisconsin Union Theater as Nazis invaded and occupied Belgium. It became impossible for several of the musicians to safely return to Brussels, where the group was founded. They remained in the United States and were granted permanent residence at the UW later that year.
Though Pro Arte is now made up of Americans David Perry, Suzanne Beia, Sally Chisholm and Parry Karp, the ensemble's Belgian heritage lives on. This group performed Mernier's piece, and guest soloist violist Samuel Rhodes, a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, joined them for Anton Bruckner's Quintet in F major.
In keeping with Mernier's desire for music that expresses "a complete lost sense of chronological time," the composition had no formal program listing. Approximately 30 minutes long, this work is divided into nine sections, which range from less than a minute to more than five minutes. The piece is quite impressionistic, with tonal sound effects that invite visceral reactions such as excitement and jubilation in the first section and a sense of foreboding in the fifth. Swelling tremolos and harmonics eventually gave way to impressive ascending trills.
The group's technical mastery showed in their flawless intonation, timing and phrasing, which were accented with sensitivity to tonal colors and dynamics. The performers presented a rich palette of effects as well, adeptly playing sul ponticello, sul tasto, portamenti and more, creating a unified voice with disparate parts.
Pro Arte continued the performance with a soulful rendition of the Bruckner Quintet. Though this a piece of chamber music, it contains longer movements and thematic development more characteristic of a symphony. Throughout the lush, deeply expressive third movement, the players voiced melodic lines with subtle phrasing and vibrato as brooding, soft dynamic sections gave way to tugging harmonies.
Featuring music with a somewhat rough, dance-like quality, the fourth movement of the Bruckner Quintet echoed the Mernier work's invigorating third section. Both works drew to mind Béla Bartók's tributes to folk music, highlighting the true desire of composers and artists: to borrow, build upon, and share their rich heritage with ongoing generations, a quest in keeping with the Pro Arte Quartet's centennial theme of continuity and celebration.