Madison Music Review Header
HomeReviews Features Profiles Links
Up Previous Index Next Down
Pro Arte: Bloch, Kirchner, Shostakovich

Enest Bloch: Suite No. 3 for Violoncello Solo
Leon Kirchner: String Quartet No. 2
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 92

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


The second year of "Decade by Decade," a joint project of the Madison Art Center and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, got underway with a fascinating conversation between MAC director Stephen Fleischman and MSO music director John DeMain about the art and music of the 1950's, illustrated with artworks from the museum's permanent collection and followed by a first-rate concert featuring the Pro Arte Quartet playing music composed in that decade.

The basic premise of the series, strongly demonstrated by the six events so far offered, is that the different cultural trends prevalent as each decade has unrolled reflect the larger history of the 20th century. Last year's programs encompassed two world wars, incredible industrial and technological development, social changes of unprecedented magnitude and political realignments of major significance to the present and future of human cultures.

The decade of the 50's was in both art and music a period of reaction to the disastrous Second World War, a global carnage that took as many as 50 million lives and caused a level of deprivation and destruction unique in the human experience. But it was also a decade of intense experimentation and development of new languages in both visual and musical arts.

In painting, abstract expressionism got a second wind in the works of Philip Gusten, Jackson Pollock embarked on a new way of directly putting spontaneous emotion to work in laying down color, Barnett Newman used color itself as the major element of painting, and contemporary art, stimulated by the marketing genius of the recently deceased gallery owner Leo Castelli, started to become a very large business involving superstars like Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, and Robert Rauschenberg, among many others. New directions included collaborations between artists and the theater arts and the early stages of pop and glitz.

In music, there was a tendency to dissociate from the past, to re-examine compositional elements at every level, to allow for indeterminacy and to lower the boundaries between styles of music, even admitting non-musical materials. Thus composers often worked in isolation, disregarding audiences or even feeling hostile toward them, the distinctions between art music and popular music and musical theater began to blur, and musician-philosophers like John Cage deeply questioned the basis for everything.

On this background, we heard first the Suite No. 3 for Violoncello Solo (1957) by the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1916, performed by cellist Parry Karp. It's a work of strong lyricism, traditionally organized, highly rhythmic and rarely performed. Despite the dry acoustic of the art gallery, Karp gave the piece a warm, ringing performance.

Leon Kirchner studied with Toch, Bloch, Schoenberg and Sessions, all major 20th-century composers. His String Quartet No. 2 (1958) reveals strong influences of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg et al) and is not surprisingly difficult to take in fully at a single hearing. It's complex and technically very demanding, but the Pro Arte's reading brought out its lyrical, espressivo elements and its tight rhythmic organization clearly.

Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 92 (1952), certainly more familiar and immediately accessible than the Kirchner but no less difficult to play, features three movements played without interruption. Of these the second (andante) is of extraordinary lyric intensity, something of a jewel flanked by the expansive opening allegro non troppo and the comparatively cheerful concluding moderato. The playing, not unexpectedly, was a minor miracle.

The remaining four programs, all Thursdays, are sure to be equally revealing and absorbing. "The 1960s: A Climate of Protest," Oct. 14; "The 1970s: Confronting Realities," Nov. 11; "The 1980s: Exploring Diversity," Feb. 10; and "The 1990s: Narrating Identities," Mar. 23.

From a critical perspective, the "Decade by Decade" series is one of the most important cultural enterprises undertaken here. It brings together two of the community's key arts organizations and presents a retrospective basis for charting a course on the unfolding frontier of the coming millennum as Madison more fully realizes its potential for a vibrant, broadly participatory public in the downtown arts district that is soon to be.

Isthmus, September, 1999
Copyright 1999 Jess Anderson

Up Previous Index Next Down