World premiere taps Pro Arte Quartet’s Belgian roots

February 18, 2014

Pro Arte Quartet

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

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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.

Benoît Mernier

Benoît Mernier

“My favorite instrument is the voice, because the singing voice is the most expressive of all instruments,” says Mernier. “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 Saturday, March 1, in the Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities, 455 N. Park St. The 8 p.m. event is free and open to the public, with no tickets required.

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.

Mernier’s work, the fifth Pro Arte centennial commission, was composed in honor of the quartet’s Belgian heritage.

The Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels, formed in 1911-12, 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. Pro Arte also is the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartet.

The Mernier commission also brings the Pro Arte full-circle to its Belgian roots, a course that will include several concert dates in Brussels in May 2014. According to Mernier, the Belgian connection is something that makes the String Quartet No. 3 a very special work.

“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.

“In the history of modern music, the Pro Arte Quartet is very important. I know the commission is a very great symbol.”

Benoît Mernier

The Mernier commission also represents the first non-U.S. composer in its centennial series, following collaborations with William Bolcom, John Harbison, Walter Mays and Paul Schoenfield.

“Just like the other four commissions, this new work represents a beautiful and serious addition to the chamber music repertoire,” says violist Sally Chisholm.

On Thursday, Feb. 27, the Pro Arte welcomes guests to an open rehearsal from 9 a.m.-noon in Mills Hall, during which the composer will coach the quartet.

Two events with Mernier on the evening of March 1 include a dinner and cocktails with the composer at the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave. (for details and reservations visit info@proartequartet.org or call 608-217-6786.) The cost is $35. Mernier will also present a pre-concert conversation in Mills Hall at 7 p.m., just before the performance.

On Sunday, March 2, both the Mernier and the Bruckner pieces will be performed live at the Chazen as part of the art museum’s regularly scheduled “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” broadcast at 12:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio.

For more information about the quartet, its history, its schedule and recordings, click here.

– Michael Muckian