A Beethoven celebration to span the seasons

Pro Arte Quartet continues celebration of 250 years of famed composer's music
The Pro Arte Quartet, left to right: cellist Parry Karp, violinist Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and violinist David Perry. (Photo courtesy of the Pro Arte Quartet)

The 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven’s isn’t until December 16, but arts organizations around the world aren’t waiting to celebrate.

That includes Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet, which launched a two-season series of performances of all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets. The first concert was in November, and the next installment takes place Friday, Feb. 28, at 8 p.m. at the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, and admission is free.

The string quartet was still new when Beethoven composed his first gems around 1800. The arrangement was extensively developed by Joseph Haydn and beautifully crystallized by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beethoven didn’t just take the form to the next level, his last works anticipated structures and techniques that would not be heard again for nearly a century.

Now in its 108th season, the Pro Arte Quartet is the longest-performing string quartet in history and has been in residence at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 1940. The current members have been together for the last 25 years: violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp. Karp also holds the distinction of being the longest-tenured player in the ensemble’s storied history, anchoring the group for the past 41 years.

The Beethoven quartets break neatly into groups of early, middle and late compositions, and the Pro Arte players reflect this in their programming.

Karp says that the group intentionally includes one quartet from each style period in all but one of the performances in the series, which provides some insight into the differences among them.

“We did want to have an early, middle and late quartet on each program,” Karp says. “I think it is fair to say that the early Op. 18 quartets are outstanding works and that Beethoven didn’t get any better, he just constantly evolved.”

On Friday’s concert, the group opens with Beethoven’s very first string quartet, then moves to the Op. 74 (nicknamed the “Harp Quartet” due to the dominant pizzicato, or plucked strings technique in the first movement), and then closes with the late Op. 131, a work many have felt is the most “futuristic” for its time.

“At the concert we’re about to perform, the slow movements of all three of these quartets are all incredibly profound and moving. Any time one plays an all-Beethoven concert it takes everything physically, emotionally and intellectually out of you that you have to offer, and a little bit more,” Karp says.

Certainly the Pro Arte Quartet has the stamina. For decades the ensemble have maintained an arduous rehearsal schedule: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon. It is a rigorous routine that has maintained the group’s international reputation over the decades.

But Karp emphasizes that this celebratory Beethoven cycle, which doesn’t conclude until January 31, 2021, is unique.

“Like great actors performing Shakespeare, as you grow in understanding more of the emotion and intellect in these works, you have more to bring to them. The more you study and perform them, the more you find. Beethoven never lets you down … you just hope you don’t let him down.”

Greg Hettmansberger covers jazz, opera and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.