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Feb. 20 Wauwatosa East High School

When the Pro Arte Quartet (PAQ) shows up at Wauwatosa East High School on Feb. 20 for its annual oneday residency with the school’s orchestra students, the four string players affiliated with the UW-Madison School of Music will have something more to brag about than nearly two decades of uninterrupted residency at the suburban Milwaukee institution. The 2011-2012 season marks Pro Arte’s 100th anniversary, making it one of the world’s oldest continuously performing string quartets.

Pro Arte is celebrating its centennial season with newly commissioned works from four well-known contemporary composers. Like their Tosa East appearances, new commissions are part of PAQ’s legacy, something that Jeff Sturgeon, orchestra director for Tosa East High School, says enhances the value Pro Arte brings to his budding musicians.

“Students grow musically by listening to the Pro Arte Quartet,” Sturgeon says, “and they learn from performance techniques suggested during coaching sessions with the world-class musicians and college professors.”

Pro Arte’s history reads like a novel. Due to circumstances beyond its control back in 1940, Pro Arte became the first quartet-in-residence at any university anywhere, a practice now standard in the classical music industry. On May 10, 1940, the Quatuor Pro Arte of Brussels was in the middle of a 10-day performance run of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets at the Wisconsin Union Theater on the UW-Madison campus when the musicians learned that the Nazis had occupied Belgium. Belgian violinists Alphonse Onnou and Laurent Halleaux and violist Germain Prévost, three of the quartet’s four members, were unable to return to their homeland.

But plans already had been set in motion that would result in dramatic changes, both to the quartet’s status and the very nature of patronage. Prior to leaving Madison that week, the university and the quartet had reached a verbal agreement. By October 1940, a contract had been signed and the ensemble’s name was changed to the University of Wisconsin Pro Arte Quartet. The group has called Madison home ever since.

To celebrate its centennial year, Pro Arte commissioned original works from four contemporary composers, with all four works to be given their world premieres during the 2011-12 season. Two of the works have already been performed.

Walter Mays’ String Quartet No. 2 premiered Oct. 22 and Paul Schoenfield’s Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet debuted Nov. 19. William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2 will premiere March 24 in the Wisconsin Union Theater and feature UW- Madison faculty pianist Christopher Taylor. John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 will debut April 21 in Mills Concert Hall of the Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus.

The commissions support Pro Arte’s mission of championing contemporary music and add to the list of more than 100 works that have been written for, dedicated to or premiered by the quartet over the years. Among other works, PAQ premiered Samuel Barber’s famous “Adagio for Strings” in Rome in 1936. It also has debuted works by Béla Bartók, Darius Milhaud and others.

The world premieres are accompanied by master classes held at UW-Madison and by lectures from top classical music, cultural and historical experts. All events, including the concerts and lectures, are free and open to the public.

During its history, Pro Arte has gone through many changes in membership. The quartet currently consists of violinist Suzanne Beia, violist Sally Chisholm, cellist Parry Karp and violinist David Perry. The performers have become well known to Tosa East music students, who perform in different combinations during the daylong residency and whose playing is critiqued by Pro Arte members.

“We don’t have an agenda, but prefer to let the music teachers fill us in on what they would like to see accomplished,” Beia says. “We will offer student performers suggestions, outline rehearsal strategies or simply play through a designated work for the students so they can hear how more experienced musicians approach it.”

Personal coaching and teaching through example have had a very positive impact on students, according to Sturgeon. The experience is also very beneficial for Pro Arte, Beia says.

“It’s a great privilege to work with the young musicians and pass along a little of the knowledge we’ve picked up along the way,” she says. “We invariably leave feeling uplifted by the whole experience.”

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