Mernier Composition Brings Pro Arte Quartet Full Circle
NOTE: This concert and associated events has been postponed to March 1, 2014. We apologize for any inconvenience.
by Michael Muckian
Belgian composer Benoît Mernier writes music he says communicates with audience members in a variety of ways. He believes firmly that there is no single right way to experience music providing audience members are open to its messages.
Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3, commissioned by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet as part of its ongoing centennial celebration, embraces a lyrical path that takes the composer in new directions.
“My favorite instrument is the voice, because the singing voice is the most expressive of all instruments,” says Mernier, who studied organ and composition at the Royal College of Music in Liege, Belgium, and records for the European label Cypres. “The song is the model for all instrumentalists, and theoretical treatises in ancient music tell the players to imitate the voice in their performances.”
Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3 will receive its world premiere by the Pro Arte on Friday, March 1 at Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus. The 8 p.m. event is free and open to the public, with no tickets required.
The March concert will be preceded by a dinner and an open rehearsal during which the composer will coach the Pro Arte as they prepare for the premiere of the work, composed in honor of the quartet’s Belgian heritage. Please check back for more details.
New Chamber Work Taps Pro Arte’s Belgian Roots
The Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels, first formed in 1911-1912, was performing at the Wisconsin Union Theatre on the UW campus on May 10, 1940, when Belgium was overrun and occupied by Nazi forces, turning three of its original four musicians into war orphans. By October of that year, the group had officially become the UW Pro Arte Quartet, making it the first artist ensemble-in-residence at any university in the world. Pro Arte also is the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartet.
In addition to the Mernier premiere, the concert will include Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Opus 20, No. 4, composed in 1772, and Bruckner’s String Quartet in F Major, written in 1879. Frequent Pro Arte collaborator and violist Samuel Rhodes, a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, will perform with the Pro Arte’s four musicians on the Bruckner composition.
Linear Structure, Musical Flow
Mernier’s 25-minute composition consists of nine specific movements, all of which have a compositional relationship with each other. Some movements are distinct and deliberate, while others flow into one another in an attempt to create a multi-dimensional structure, the composer says.
“The structural idea is to have a sort of linear music that moves in different directions,” Mernier says. “But at the end of the work there is a global sensation, like a story with different chapters. It will be up to the listener to structure and unify the different parts of the story.”
Mernier, who also writes opera, finds composing for a string quartet challenging, since there is only one family of instruments, limiting the voice of the composition. Employing different musical styles, from pizzicato to arco and playing sul ponticello (on the instrument’s bridge) or sul tasto (on the fingerboard), has helped the composer broaden the work’s tonal appeal.
“When you compose a string quartet, you are faced with a pure musical phenomenon,” Mernier says. “You can’t be on the periphery; you must be in the heart of things.”
Mernier’s experience writing for voice shows through the finesse applied to his string quartet, according to David Perry, one of Pro Arte’s two violinists.
“I was not surprised to hear that Mernier’s favorite instrument is voice, as there is extensive use of portamenti and glissandi,” says Perry. “I have never encountered a piece with more specific gradations of sul ponticello, or bowing close to the bridge for different shades of sounds with lots of high overtones. This technique can result in some unusual, and often beautiful colors.”
Mernier’s style and status among his European musical colleagues helped Pro Arte choose him for its fifth centennial commission. Based on the composition and its challenges, the quartet’s choice was a good one, says Sally Chisholm, Pro Arte’s violist.
“The many quick changes of sonorities from our most intimate to our most electrifying are exciting techniques that demanded much practice,” says Chisholm. “The required virtuosity of string writing in the second half of the quartet is quite challenging. Paganini would be a warm-up for some of the viola writing!”
A New CD, A Belgian Tour
Performances of Pro Arte’s four previous centennial commissions by American composers William Bolcom, John Harbison, Walter Mays and Paul Schoenfield will be issued this fall on Albany Records. The release date is on or around Dec. 1.
The Mernier commission represents the first non-U.S. composer in the centennial series. It also brings the Pro Arte full-circle to its Belgian roots, a course that will include several concert dates in Brussels in May 2014. The Belgian connection is something that makes the String Quartet No. 3 a very special work, Mernier says.
“In the history of modern music, the Pro Arte Quartet is very important,” Mernier says. “I know the commission is a very great symbol.”
The Madison-based quartet agrees with the composer, citing Mernier’s work as a strong contribution to its long tradition of commissioning and premiering new work. Pro Arte’s list includes Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings, which the quartet premiered in Rome in 1936.
“Just like the other four commissions, this new work represents a beautiful and serious addition to the chamber music repertoire,” Chisholm says.
In addition to Chisholm and Perry, current musicians in the Pro Arte include violinist Suzanne Beia and cellist Parry Karp.