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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Pro Arte Quartet celebrates a century with new commissions
Looking back, looking forward
David Perry (left), Sally Chisholm, Parry Karp and Suzanne Beia have prepared a dazzling season. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

String quartets are delicate creatures that can be here today and gone today. So when a quartet's 100th anniversary comes around, it's natural to wonder what it did right. This question is resounding in Madison as the UW-Madison's Pro Arte Quartet, the oldest continuing string quartet in the world, celebrates its centennial.

Originally from Belgium, Pro Arte became UW's quartet-in-residence in 1940. Before then, the group concertized in Europe, the U.S. and Canada with the help of its patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. In May 1940, while the group was here to play an all-Beethoven concert in the Wisconsin Union Theater, Hitler invaded Belgium. The Belgian members of the quartet, Alphonse Onnou, Laurent Halleux and Germain Prévost, were stranded.

The invasion quickened the university's plan to invite Pro Arte to make Madison its home base. By the fall, it was the first quartet-in-residence at any major university in the country. But this was not the first time that Pro Arte members were faced with the consequences of war.

The story begins in Belgium around 1912, on the eve of World War I, when violinist Onnou and violist Prévost played in quartet concerts that highlighted avant-garde music and art. After the war, the Belgian government sent musicians to occupied Germany to give concerts, and among them were Onnou, Prévost and violinist Halleux. They recruited cellist Fernand Auguste Lemaire, and the Pro Arte Quartet was born in the spirit of goodwill, with musicians who looked to music's future, unafraid of quirky rhythms, atonal monsters and clashing harmonies.

The quartet championed the composers of their time, and this tradition will be highlighted during the centennial season.

The current members of Pro Arte have been together since about 1995 and include first violinist David Perry, second violinist Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp. With the help of community angels and grants from the NEA and the Koussevitzky Foundation, they have prepared a dazzling season. All centennial events, except for pre-concert dinners, are free and open to the public.

Each concert features the world premiere of a commissioned work by renowned contemporary American composers Walter Mays, Paul Schoenfield, William Bolcom and John Harbison. They will be on hand to give master classes during the weeks of their premieres.

The season begins on Oct. 22 with the premiere of Mays' String Quartet No. 2. Mays wrote his first string quartet for Pro Arte in 1997, a work that he describes as serious, aggressive, somber and tragic. "The second string quartet is lighter, virtuosic and without so much angst," he says. It was inspired by Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu, who dreamed one night that he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he was uncertain. Was he a man dreaming that he was a butterfly or was he a butterfly dreaming that he was man?

The Mays quartet has three butterfly adventures with hints of Chinese music, insect sounds and otherworldly sonorities. One adventure is an amorous scherzo, another a pizzicato, the third a gliding adventure. After the butterfly dies, a musical question hangs in the air, like Chuang-tzu's question. The piece is technically challenging and will give Pro Arte members an opportunity to show off their skills.

Mays says that working with Pro Arte is one of the high points of his life. "Pro Arte has an elegant sense of accuracy and purity of intonation. They could play everything I wrote."

Mays is professor of musicology and composition at Wichita State University, and his first string quartet was nominated for a Pulitzer. This concert will be completed by Bloch's Prelude, Barber's Quartet in B minor and Schubert's Quintet for Strings in C Major, with acclaimed cellist Bonnie Hampton of the Juilliard School.

On Nov. 19, the world premiere will be Paul Schoenfield's "Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet" with pianist Brian Huys, a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Schoenfield is from Detroit and is a passionate student of the Talmud. He likens a composer to a cabinet builder.

"They build something that is well formed and beautifully structured," he says. "It has the right ambience, the right color, and it fits the kitchen perfectly."

The first of the three rhapsodies is a series of transformations on the rock 'n' roll hit "Get a Job," with its famous nonsense syllables: sha na na na, sha na na na, na. The second rhapsody moves from angst to repose while the third is a thumping, ostentatious dance that begins with a Hasidic freilach. The rhapsodies will be flanked by Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 4 ("Jewish") and Beethoven's Op. 131.

Schoenfield teaches composition at the University of Michigan and is also a formidable pianist who studied with Rudolf Serkin.

On March 24, 2012, William Bolcom's Piano Quintet No. 2 takes the spotlight, featuring pianist Christopher Taylor. The quintet has four movements and is structured much the same as Brahms and Schumann's quintets, though it has modern feeling and gesture. Bolcom is popular for his piano rags, but the quintet will be starkly different. He writes in an email that "There is a tragic mood to the piece which I find I'm doing a lot these days in my writing."

Taylor, piano professor at the UW-Madison, has a wizardly command over complex music and has played and recorded Bolcom's work in the past. Other pieces on this program include Webern's "Langsamer Satz, M78," Milhaud's Quartet No. 7 and Mozart's String Quintet in G minor, with violist Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard Quartet.

Bolcom retired from the University of Michigan in 2008 after 35 years of teaching. He first met Taylor when the pianist was an 11-year-old ragtime piano player.

The final concert of the season, on April 21, will feature Haydn, Franck and the world premiere of John Harbison's String Quartet No. 5. Although Harbison was born and bred on the East Coast, he is a vital part of the Madison community. He and his violinist wife, Rose Mary Harbison, are the artistic directors of the ever-popular Token Creek Chamber Music Festival that takes place every summer at their home in rural Dane County.

Harbison is known for his large choral works and operas, like The Great Gatsby, a Metropolitan Opera commission that premiered in 1999. The Fifth String Quartet deviates from his previous string quartets and from most of his other works in scope and length. It has 10 short movements that the audience will hear as one.

"Ten years ago, I couldn't have imagined writing this," he says. "Short sections have never been congenial for me, and I can't figure out why I want to write them now or why I can."

He says that the quartet has certain movements that refer to each other in certain patterns. The fourth movement ("Faces") and the sixth movement ("Hearts") are related through their very unusual soundscapes. The nocturne movements create a trio and are more extroverted in mood.

The Harbisons studied with the legendary Rudolph Kolisch, first violinist for Pro Arte from 1944 to 1961, and brother-in-law to tonality's consummate rebel, Arnold Schoenberg.

As part of the season, luminaries in the classical music world will give pre-concert lectures. They include author and former New York Times critic Joseph Horowitz; Bill McGlaughlin, host of NPR's Exploring Music; Anthony Tommasini, music critic for The New York Times; and Tully Potter, contributing editor for Classical Recordings Quarterly in London.

While a season of this magnitude tests a quartet's ability to work together, magic happens during rehearsals, according to Pro Arte violist Sally Chisholm.

"Breathing together at the cadence points, feeling the music physically and singing along inside create a group pulse," she says. "Eventually, breathing and the group pulse become inseparable, and when that happens, you can get spontaneous group ideas that occur to you together. These are the moments we remember."

And they have a good time. "Besides being a great violinist, Suzanne is also our dessert critic," says Chisholm. "We idolize David. He was in the group for two years before he even played a note out of tune while sight-reading a difficult violin part. I thought, 'He's human.' Parry is a great player from a great family of players. It's a very good group for getting spontaneous ideas, but you can't hunger for that too much. You just play and see what develops. It's a nice thing."

For a century, Pro Arte has survived the usual ailments that befall all string quartets: illness, loss, personality conflicts and money problems. You might say Pro Arte's longevity was prefigured in something as simple as a name. Alphonse Onnou, founder of the group, refused to have it named after him because he wanted it to continue after his death.

But the main reason for its survival is the community behind it. When the group was in financial trouble in 1978, "chamber music devotees once more deluged the chancellor's office with mail." So wrote Martha Blum, former violinist for Pro Arte, in her monograph The Pro Arte Quartet 50 Years.

Today, Pro Arte fans like Bob and Linda Graebner are helping organize the centennial season.

"We have been groupies with the quartet since we were students here," says Bob. "We became aware of the 100th anniversary and knew the musicians were probably too busy to plan it all by themselves, so we approached them about seven years ago about a commission of a new string quartet, and thought of John Harbison."

"Bob thought the centennial should be a time of celebration and put a great amount of effort into it," says Linda. "It's a wonderful opportunity for students and the community."

"Pro Arte is grateful to the community, the Graebners and to [general manager] Sarah Schaffer for making this centennial possible," says Chisholm. "That kind of support makes a quartet want to be great."

At the conclusion of their Madison premieres, Pro Arte members plan an extensive tour beginning with a concert at the home of the Belgian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C. The premiere of a work by Belgian composer Benot Mernier is also slated. They will perform in various cultural centers around the world and in Belgium, the country where it all began.

Pro Arte Quartet: Centennial Commissions
Mills Hall, UW Humanities Building, Saturday, Oct. 22, 8 pm
Mills Hall, Saturday, Nov. 19, 8 pm
Wisconsin Union Theater, Saturday, March 24, 8 pm
Mills Hall, Saturday, April 21, 8 pm

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