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Pro Arte: Haydn, Shapey, Schubert

Beethoven: Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Ralph Shapey: Quartet No. 9 (1995)
Schubert: Quartet in A Minor, D. 804

Pro Arte Quartet
David Perry, violin
Suzanne Beia, violin
Sally Chisholm, viola
Parry Karp, cello


Simultaneously completing the Music School's Centennial Commissions series and the Faculty Concert Series, the Pro Arte Quartet presented a fine concert Saturday evening in Mills Hall. The program began with early Beethoven (G Major, Op. 18, No. 2) and ended with late Schubert (A Minor, D. 804). In the middle was the premiere of a brand-new piece, Ralph Shapey's Quartet No. 9 (1995), commissioned for the occasion. The fare was Vienna classicism from start to finish. It also marked the end of the first season for the two newcomers to the Pro Arte, violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia, who joined violist Sally Chisholm and cellist Parry Karp last September.

The newcomers have already shaped the sound of the quartet, I think. The ensemble's playing is more controlled than it was, slightly understated, less emotionally direct. In the Beethoven, this reserve emphasized the successor to Haydn more than the precursor of Romanticism, eschewing monumentality and rescaling the musical experience to more human proportions. In the Schubert, too, there was a kind of suave, sophisticated calm, hinting at, rather than directly revealing the deep pensiveness of the A Minor quartet. I would not claim this more controlled character of the playing is either better or worse than what preceded it, and in any case it is still early to be describing the group's sound in great detail. My own inclination, I think, would be for a little less sophistication and a little more raw power in this repertory.

I referred to the whole concert as classical because the ghost of Arnold Schoenberg is alive and well in the music of Ralph Shapey, and I intend by this comparison the highest possible compliment. Hardly two bars of his 9th Quartet had sounded when I realized that I knew nothing of his eight earlier works in this form and must be much the poorer for it. Prior to the advent of electronic instruments, the most far-reaching music innovation of our century, it seems fair to say, was the complete generalization of tonality and the idea of serial motifs, represented in the so-called Second Vienna Classicism of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. It seemed to me, as I listed to the Shapey work, that there is an unbroken line between then and now, as though the 75-year-old Shapey had picked up these seminal ideas and nurtured them from his own first breath.

The work is as spare as it could be: two-note motifs in every conceivable formation are its whole material, and the work's four movements last in all 21 and a half minutes. A chordal introduction gives way to a complex set of variations forming the first movement, where the idea of variation is embodied in rhythmic, timbral, and polyphonic alterations of the material. Adding a pickup prepartion to the motif provides a triplet idea that permeates the brief, not especially fast scherzo. With all four instruments doubly muted and the basic motif doubled, the slow movement, a canzonetta, relaxes somewhat the incredibly tight concentration of the outer movements and with great espressivo appeals directly to the emotions. The work concludes with a rondo-fugue that returns to the opening material and its compressed, "thick" textures. This highly schematic summary hardly does the piece justice, I'm sure, but on this first hearing my reaction was: "Thank heavens, here's somebody who hasn't been carried out to sea by the wave of neo-Romanticism that's closing out our century." The audience of about 500 applauded all three quartets warmly and enthusiastically.

Isthmus, May, 1996
Copyright 1996 Jess Anderson

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