New Pro Arte CD featuring centennial commissions now for sale

Pro Arte Quartet Release Centennial CD

New recording features four commissioned works

by Mike Muckian

MADISON, Wis. – The Pro Arte Quartet, the string ensemble-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, has released The Pro Arte Quartet Centennial Anniversary Commissions on the Albany Records label. The double-CD, which contains the first four compositions commissioned to celebrate the Pro Arte’s 2011-2012 100th anniversary season, is now available. 

The four new compositions recorded by the Pro Arte, considered the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartet, will soon be joined by a fifth commissioned work, the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier. The world premiere of Mernier’s work is scheduled to take place March 1, 2014, in Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus, and will bring the Pro Arte full-circle to its Belgian roots.

ProArte CD

The Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels, founded in 1911, 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.

Current members of the Pro Arte who perform on the new CD include David Perry and Suzanne Beia on violin, Sally Chisholm on viola and Parry Karp on cello.

The recording, produced by multiple Grammy Award-winning classical producer Judith Sherman, contains commissioned work by American composers Walter Mays, Paul Schoenfield, William Bolcom and John Harbison. The Mays and Schoenfield string quartets were recorded in December 2011 in Mills Hall, where each received its world premiere, and the Bolcom and Harbison piano quintets were recorded in May 2012, also in Mills Hall.

Mays’ String Quartet No. 2 “Dreaming Butterfly” is based on writings in the second chapter of the Zhuangzi, the ancient book of Chinese Taoist philosophy. The work is a follow-up to Mays’ String Quartet in G Minor, written for the Pro Arte during the summer of 1998. The new work takes as its inspiration Master Zhuang’s dream of being a butterfly, floating free of worldly cares, then awakening to wonder if he wasn’t really a butterfly dreaming that it was the Taoist philosopher. 

“’Dreaming Butterfly’ is laid out in five connected sections, three scherzo adventures surrounded by two ‘sleep music’ episodes,” says Mays, a member of Kansas’s Wichita State University composition faculty. “There is also a brief codetta, inspired by Zhuang’s idea that he might still be a butterfly. An important feature is the virtuosity of the first violin part, which represents the spirit of the butterfly.”

Schoenfield’s Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet combines three very different influences to comprise a 25-minute work inspired by literature, Yiddish ceremony and even 1950s pop music.

“Every time I sit down to compose a piece of music, a little voice in my head asks, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” says Schoenfiled, a Detroit native and professor of music composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “So that became the first movement of my work.”

The composition’s first rhapsody is based on the 1957 Silhouettes doo-wop hit “Get A job.” The second rhapsody takes both its title and tone from “The Beach of Desolation,” an elliptical Henry James story about unrequited love, a threatened breach-of-promise suit, and a surprise solution. The third rhapsody, “Klezmorim,” is “joyfully” composed and performed in Hasidic fashion, the composer says.

Brian (Keng-Lun) Hsu, a former University of Michigan doctoral student in piano studies and now assistant professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, performs with the Pro Arte on the Schoenfield composition.

Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2 fulfills the composer’s mission to mirror society. “It’s a very broad and passionate piece,” says Bolcom, a Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning composer who retired as musical composition teacher at the University of Michigan in 2008. “It’s kind of a warning, even a lament, perhaps, of what we’ve become in our world today.”

Bolcom’s four-movement composition features UW School of Music Professor Christopher Taylor on piano. Taylor, the recipient of numerous honors and accolades including the Van Cliburn Bronze Medal, had previously recorded Bolcom’s 12 New Etudes in 2000.

Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5, which completes the CD’s lineup, is comprised of 10 short movements. It’s an approach that Harbison, winner of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation genius award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, had never before taken in his string quartets.

“Many of these movements were longer when they started out,” says Harbison. “I retained the parts of each that were closest to the central theme.”

The composition replicates in structure the Leonard Stein Anagrams, a piano work Harbison composed in honor of the late Leonard Stein, composer Arnold Schoenberg’s personal assistant and former head of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute in Los Angeles. Stein’s predilection to turn names of friends and acquaintances into anagrams inspired Harbison’s short-movements approach to both the piano work and string quartet.

Copies may be purchased through Albany Records or at the School of Music.  Call 608.263.1900 to order from the School of Music, or check this site: http://apps.music.wisc.edu/cdstore/all.asp 

Review copies of The Pro Arte Quartet Centennial Anniversary Commissions are available to critics and journalists upon request. Please contact Sarah Schaffer at the UW School of Music, 608-217-6786 or slschaffer@wisc.edu for more information.

Older releases (dating back to 1931) by the Pro Arte Quartet can be found here.

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