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Pro Arte Quartet turns 100, celebrates with new commissions, free concerts, lectures

October 6, 2011

On May 10, 1940, the Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels was in the middle of a 10-day performance run of Beethoven’s “Rasumovsky” quartets at the Wisconsin Union Theater on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus when the musicians received terrible news.

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet rehearsal at Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building on Sept. 27. Pictured (left to right) are David Perry, Suzanne Beia, Sally Chisholm and Parry Karp.

Photo: Bryce Richter

German Nazi forces had invaded their home country, and the formerly neutral Belgium was now part of occupied Europe. Belgian violinists Alphonse Onnou and Laurent Halleaux and violist Germain Prévost, three of the quartet’s four members, orphaned by the war, were unable to return to their homeland.

But plans had been set in motion a year earlier by UW President Clarence Dykstra and School of Music chair Carl Bricken that would result in dramatic changes, not only to the quartet’s status, but to the very nature of quartet patronage. Prior to leaving Madison, the university and quartet had reached a verbal agreement.

By October, a contract had been signed changing the ensemble’s name to the University of Wisconsin Pro Arte Quartet, making them the school’s first artist ensemble-in-residence.

While this past May marked the 71st anniversary of the quartet’s change in status, the ensemble was originally formed by students of the Brussels Conservatory in 1911–12, making this year the quartet’s 100th anniversary.

The Pro Arte is believed to be the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartet and the first quartet anywhere to enjoy a university ensemble-in-residence status, now standard procedure for all string quartets.

To celebrate its centennial year, Pro Arte has commissioned original works from four contemporary composers, all of which will be given their world premieres during the 2011–12 season, three in Mills Concert Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW–Madison campus and the March premiere at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The works and their first performance dates include:

— Walter Mays’ “String Quartet No. 2,” on Saturday, Oct. 22, in Mills Concert Hall.

— Paul Schoenfield’s “Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet,” on Saturday, Nov. 19, in Mills Concert Hall.

— William Bolcom’s “Piano Quintet No. 2,” on Saturday, March 24, in the Wisconsin Union Theater with UW faculty pianist Christopher Taylor.

— John Harbison’s “String Quartet No. 5” on Saturday, April 21, in Mills Concert Hall.

The commissions support Pro Arte’s historical mission of championing contemporary music, and the new commissions add to the list of more than 100 works that have been written for, dedicated to or premiered by the quartet from composers such as Bela Bartók, Samuel Barber (the famous “Adagio for Strings”), Darius Milhaud and others.

The world premieres will be also accompanied by master classes held at UW–Madison, including working sessions with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, and by lectures given by top classical music, cultural and historical experts including Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times and Bill McGlaughlin of National Public Radio.

In addition, several exhibitions will be held — at Dane County Airport and on campus at Memorial Library, Mills Music Library and Mills Concert Hall lobby. A book-length history of the Pro Arte is under way, and a two-CD set of the world premieres will be recorded for and released by Albany Records. Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television are also participating in the celebration.

All events, including the concerts and lectures, are free and open to the public, in keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, the centennial of which is also being celebrated this year.

Dreaming Butterfly

The composition by Mays, a member of Kansas’s Wichita State University composition faculty who had studied with John Cage and Krzystof Penderecki, was an obvious first choice for Pro Arte, says David Perry, one of the quartet’s two violinists.

“Walter Mays naturally came to our minds when we began thinking about American composers,” says Perry, who was a professional colleague of the composer in the 1990s. “The Pro Arte commissioned his first string quartet, a fantastic piece in G minor, in 1998, which we later premiered and recorded for a 2003 Albany Records release. It was a very successful piece, and all four of us were inspired working with him.”  

Mays’ new work, referred to by the composer as “Dreaming Butterfly,” draws on historic and philosophical sources centered around ancient China. The work’s concept revolves around Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsu, who dreamed he was a butterfly and experienced marvelous adventures in his new role, the composer says.

“The process of composing is a little like putting together a puzzle,” Mays says. “The various puzzle pieces for this composition include gestures from 19th century violin virtuoso music, my impressions of Chinese opera, insect sounds, ‘special sound effects’ in contemporary string writing, the charming supernatural stories of the 17th century Chinese writer P’u Sung-ling and, of course, ideas from my own previous works for strings.”

Perry says the Pro Arte is excited to premiere the work. “It’s a strikingly original and imaginative piece with some brilliant rhythmic writing, innovative textures and sound effects — no mean feat in a medium that has been around as long as the string quartet — and a thought-provoking storyline based on Chinese folklore which got the composer musing on the equality of all things,” he explains.   

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland will interview Mays on “The Midday” radio broadcast at noon on Oct. 19 (WERN 88.7 FM). In addition to appearing at the Oct. 22 premiere, Mays will hold a composition master class on Oct. 19 and an open rehearsal with the quartet on Oct. 20 as part of his residency. Prior to the Oct. 22 performance, music and culture historian Joseph Horowitz will offer two lectures — “Wagnerism and the New American Woman” and “Artists in Exile: How Refugee Immigrants Impacted on the American Performing Arts”  — as part the weekend’s celebratory events.

During its history, Pro Arte went through many changes in membership. In addition to Perry, the quartet currently consists of violinist Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp.

For more information on the centennial celebration and a complete schedule of events, visit and click on “Centennial.”