The Wisconsin Union Theater's annual concert series this year offers something unique in Madison musical history, performances of the complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets in six concerts, played by three different quartet ensembles of world-class stature. The series opens November 1st and 2nd with two programs by the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, continues in February with a pair of programs by Madison's own Pro Arte Quartet, and concludes in April with two programs by the relatively new but highly regarded Orion Quartet.
It's apparently only the third time all 16 Beethoven string quartets have been heard here as a series. The Pro Arte did them in 1987, and before that we have to go way back to 1940, when the original Pro Arte ensemble's complete performance, combined with the advent of war in Europe, stranded the Belgian group in Madison, where they accepted a residency at the UW-Madison, the first artists in residence in a major American university. Through several changes of personnel, the Pro Arte has been at Wisconsin ever since.
Though it has been done elsewhere, dividing the Beethoven series among three ensembles is a first for Madison, according to Union Theater director Michael Goldberg. "The Emerson has played here twice before," Goldberg says with a broad grin, "with extremely positive reviews; they currently enjoy a sort of superstar status among American quartets. Of course, we know the Pro Arte very well and have for many years. As for the Orion, they were formed about 10 years ago in New York, and have attracted major attention, so we might think of them as the young hot-shots."
Three things make this year's series even more impressive than the reputations of the three ensembles alone would suggest. First and foremost, the music involved, especially the last five quartets, is one of the most singular creative achievements in the entire history of Western art. Historically, for composers and performers alike, the string quartet has assumed a central role as the most challenging and most rewarding of all chamber-music endeavors. In a very real way, no other composer has so extensively or profoundly explored the possibilities of the medium as Beethoven has. Even Mozart and Haydn before him, even Schoenberg and Bartok after, did not equal Beethoven in the breathtaking scope of their quartet creations. The early and middle periods of Beethoven's quartet writing, though arguably not quite so miraculously original as the late works, are nevertheless of seminal importance in chamber-music history. Each of the three ensembles will be offering examples of early, middle, and late quartets in its pair of concerts.
Secondly, the Pro Arte, after a somewhat extended period of changes, has at last arrived at a stable point with respect to personnel, and the newest members of the ensemble have very quickly proved themselves to be absolutely in the first rank. One important result is that while we here in Madison may think of the Pro Arte as a local group -- gratefully, I hope -- this quartet is now positioned as never before to claim its rightful share of international acclaim, a goal toward which the group has been building steadily over the past half-generation or so.
Finally, like the performers of this demanding and unusually concentrated form of music-making, audiences for chamber music are themselves a bit on the special side. Typical chamber-music audiences, and ours in particular, tend to be thoroughly prepared for the events that draw them into the concert hall. They're already familiar with the works being heard, unless it's brand-new music, either through recordings or earlier live performances. They are likely to have studied background materials about the composer and about the music. Probably very few among them would challenge the view that a complete Beethoven cycle is an event of major importance and enjoyment, not merely as a form of entertainment but as a culturally enriching and soul-satisfying experience.
Goldberg is excited about the particular format of the series. "We are not having six concerts spread over the course of the season," he says, "but rather three pairs of concerts, each pair on consecutive nights. This will afford our audience a more in-depth look at the unique character of each ensemble as it essays the three periods of Beethoven's quartet output."
UW-Madison musicologist Lawrence M. Earp has prepared a monograph on the string quartets of Beethoven, giving important historical background as well as program notes to the six specific programs. "We're sending Prof. Earp's monograph to all our series subscribers (almost exactly half the house capacity of 1300 seats) because we know chamber-music audiences come prepared to the concerts. We hope it will give a sense of wholeness and completeness when the end of the series arrives next year."
The end of the series comes in April, and the final work will be the Op. 131 quartet, a piece that for all this world sounds like it comes from some other world. Its startling originality is still completely fresh today. It is thought by many -- players, scholars and listeners alike -- to be the most perfect of the whole set, perhaps the single most perfect musical achievement of any composer, anywhere. The series is something of an odyssey, the finest chamber music ever spun by the mind of humankind, amounting to a musical Golden Fleece.
Isthmus, October, 1996
Copyright 1996 Jess Anderson