Pro Arte Quartet taps its Belgian roots

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The Pro Arte Quartet: David Perry, Suzanne Beia, Sally Chisholm and Parry Karp. –Photo: Courtesy PAQ

The Pro Arte Quartet wanted to honor its Belgian heritage when it commissioned Belgian composer Benoît Mernier to write a composition for its centennial celebration.

Mernier’s work — String Quartet No. 3 — will receive its world premiere on March 1 during a concert that also includes 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.

The Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels, formed in 1911–12, was performing at the Wisconsin Union Theatre on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on May 10, 1940, when Nazi forces overran and began the occupation of Belgium. Three of the quartet’s original four musicians became war orphans.

Later that year, by October 1940, the group officially had become the UW Pro Arte Quartet — the first artist ensemble-in-residence at a university.

Today Pro Arte — featuring violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp — is known as the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartet. Frequent collaborator and violist Samuel Rhodes, a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, will perform with the four musicians on the Bruckner composition.

Mernier’s 25-minute composition consists of nine movements, all of which have a compositional relationship with each other. Some movements are distinct and deliberate, others flow together in an attempt to create a multidimensional 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 studied organ and composition at the Royal College of Music in Liege, Belgium, and records for the European label Cypres, also writes opera. “My favorite instrument is the voice, because the singing voice is the most expressive of all instruments,” he says. “The song is the model for all instrumentalists.”

For this reason, Mernier found composing for a string quartet challenging. Having one family of instruments to work with limited the voice of the composition, he says. But employing different musical styles, from pizzicato to arco, and playing sul ponticello (on the instrument’s bridge) or sul tasto (on the fingerboard), broadened the tonal appeal.

Mernier’s experience writing for voice shows in the finesse he applied to the strings. “I was not surprised to hear that Mernier’s favorite instrument is voice, as there is extensive use of portamenti and glissandi,” violinist Perry says. “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 colleagues influenced Pro Arte’s decision to choose him for the centennial commission.

The choice, says Chisholm, was a good one.

“The many quick changes of sonorities — from our most intimate to our most electrifying — are exciting techniques that demanded much practice,” says the violist. “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!”

The Mernier commission represents the first for a non-U.S. composer in the centennial series.

It also brings Pro Arte back to its Belgian roots, a course that will include several concert dates in Brussels in May. 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,” the composer says. “I know the commission is a very great symbol.”

On stage

Belgian composer Benoît Mernier’s String Quartet No. 3 receives its world premiere by the Pro Arte Quartet at 8 p.m. on March 1 at Mills Concert Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus. Admission is free to the performance, which also includes Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Opus 20, No. 4, and Bruckner’s String Quartet in F Major.