Pro Arte Quartet’s New CDs Renew a Legacy

Pro Arte Quartet’s New CDs Renew a Legacy
The CD-booklet cover of the Pro Arte Quartet's new set from Albany Records

While it may have taken one hundred years for the Pro Arte Quartet to celebrate a centennial season, it is hard to believe that nearly two years have passed since the close of that memorable series of concerts. Time flies when you’re trying to keep up with all the wonderful events that make up Madison’s musical life, but in a sense time slowed down considerably in 2011–12, as the city and University of Wisconsin–Madison celebrated the unprecedented feat of their resident ensemble.

For any readers who need to catch up on what the fuss was all about, here’s the Cliff Notes version: Four students at the Brussels Conservatory founded the quartet, which gelled after World War I. Pioneers in both early recordings and world premieres throughout the 1920s and 1930s, it was during the PAQ’s second tour of Madison that history made history. There had already been some thought as to establishing an ongoing relationship between UW–Madison and the Pro Arte, when Hitler invaded Belgium in May, 1940. That precipitated an acceleration in making the group resident artists—a first in the world of music, and a move which became the model for the artistic and academic world.

As the Pro Arte had famously been associated with premieres of composers such as Barber, Bartok, Milhaud, et al., a major aim of the centennial season was to commission a new work for each of the four local concerts. The resulting works were recorded in mid-season and at the end by Albany Records, produced by Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman. The double-cd set was released last December, and it is everything one could have hoped for.

The works were recorded in the order premiered, beginning with Walter Mays’s String Quartet No. 2, “Dreaming Butterfly.” Inspired by a story from the second chapter of the ancient Chinese book, Zhuangzi, the butterfly spirit is represented by the first violin, and David Perry delivers it with unnatural ease. The second work is Paul Schoenfield’s Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet, a wide-ranging affair that gives us the added bonus of Brian Hsu’s pianism. The first movement transforms elements of the 1957 rock and roll hit “Get a Job,” while the second uses the Hungarian lassu-friss as its stylistic and structural model, with the final rhapsody starting out as an Hasidic freilach. The energy and sheer likability of the work that I recall from that first performance are wonderfully recreated here.

The second CD opens with a work that again adds to the PAQ personnel, William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2. This time the pianist is Christopher Taylor, an artist already well acquainted with Bolcom’s work, and the composer eagerly gave Taylor plenty of worthwhile material. It is probably the most traditionally structured and inspired of the four new compositions.

The final work, String Quartet No. 5 of John Harbison, is a fitting conclusion, with the composer’s own close ties to Madison. Harbison says in his program note that he first heard the Pro Arte perform live when he was about eight years old. Harbison’s work is in ten brief, connected movements, and it is an advantage to be able to hear this work again and appreciate all the more its subtle inner workings.

The CD booklet is of far greater value and interest than what one frequently encounters these days, with a brief history of the PAQ, notes on each work, usually by the composers themselves, a complete roster of the players of the PAQ since its inception, and bios of the current members and Hsu and Taylor.

And those current members—violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp—are far from finished celebrating the PAQ’s legacy. This Saturday, March 1, at Mills Hall at 8 p.m., they will perform the fifth new work, this one by the Belgian composer Benoir Mernier. In mid-May the ensemble tours Belgium itself, and the last official centennial event is the world premiere on September 27 of a new work by Pierre Jalbert.