For Pro Arte Quartet, the Hits Just Keep On Coming

For Pro Arte Quartet, the Hits Just Keep On Coming
The Pro Arte Quartet

In case anyone had forgotten that the Pro Arte Quartet, the UW–Madison ensemble in residence with an international reputation, had celebrated the unprecedented occasion of one hundred years of performance, Saturday night’s concert gave us a vivid reminder.

The occasion marked the premiere of the fifth in a series of commissioned works, the first four being composed by Americans, and all debuted in the 2011–2012 season. Saturday night’s new work was the String Quartet No. 3 of Benoit Mernier, and his distinction is that he is a Belgian composer—after all, the PAQ was founded by four incredibly gifted young men at the Brussels Conservatory in 1911–1912.

Mernier might not have much of an American reputation—until now. His twenty-five minute, nine-movement quartet may be brimming (and sometimes bristling) with modern techniques and dissonances, but it unfolds as an emotional journey that each listener must define for themselves. Clearly the music is effective, as a substantially filled Mills Hall audience quickly rose to its feet at the work’s conclusion, and gave the ensemble and composer multiple extended ovations.

The Pro Arte would have deserved it just for their effort; their practice habits border on the legendary, but for any group to master the technical intricacies of this score, and then bring them to coherent expression, is a triumph. But this ovation was principally for Mernier, and a number of audience members’ comments at intermission and after the concert seemed to confirm this. Following , it is dearly hoped that Mernier’s quartet (and next September’s premiere of composer Pierre Jalbert’s clarinet quintet) will eventually be recorded as well. In the meantime, we may have to track down more of Mernier’s work.

While the night was focused on the premiere and the extension of the centennial celebrations, the PAQ gave us a swift reminder at the opening of the concert what their legacy is really all about: From the group’s pioneering days in the 1920s, this has been an ensemble of rare versatility and polish. Violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp began the evening with a reading of Haydn’s String Quartet No 27, Op. 20, No. 4 that could be said to have defined the Classical style.

Similarly, the second half was devoted to the quasi-sysmphonic Quintet in F Major of Bruckner. Joined by longtime occasional collaborator, violist Samuel Rhodes, the PAQ again demonstrated that on this occasion at least, they successfully transformed themselves into three ensembles of distinct sound and style. Where Haydn had been pristine clarity, and Mernier nuance and deft maneuvering, Bruckner was all thickly rich, surging sound, and an immense structure navigated with such assuredness that for once, few if any wished the work a little shorter. Rhodes is principally known for his forty-four-year career with the Juilliard Quartet, but he not only fits in with the Pro Arte as though he were a regular. The PAQ plays as though they could substitute for the vaunted Juilliard foursome.

But they are our treasure indeed, and slowly but surely it appears that a wider audience in Madison is beginning to understand what we have had in our midst since 1940—and happily, continues to bless the city with both musicality and a legacy that are rare in any metropolis.