The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Madison’s native son Christopher Karp, MD, talks about playing and performing on both violin and piano

September 3, 2010
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Most of us are content to have a good grasp of even one musical instrument or one form of making music (say, singing).

Rare are the people who do two or more well enough to perform on them in private, let alone public.

One such lucky person is Dr. Christopher Karp (below), who plays both violin and piano.

He is the younger son who will participate — this Monday night, Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall — in the 34th annual Karp Family Labor Day concert at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.  In the past, he has largely played the violin (bottom left) — and done so very well. But this year, he will perform on the piano.


The annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert has gone on for 33 years without repeating a piece. And it typically kicks off the new season at the UW School of Music, which hosts more than 300 events each season.

Admission is FREE and OPEN to the public – which usually responds by making it the best attended event of the season on the UW School of Music’s Faculty Concert Series.

The program this year is an unusual and appealing one.

It will include Howard’s pianist wife Frances Karp and cellist son Parry Karp (who teaches at the UW-Madison and plays in the UW’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet) performing the Sonata for Violin and Piano, as transcribed for cello, by 20th century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (below).


Frances Karp will also play in the “Phantasy” Piano Quartet in F-sharp minor by 20th-century British composer Frank Bridge (below) with violinist Suzanne Beia, cellist Parry Karp and Parry’s wife, violist Katrin Talbot.


Howard Karp will perform son Parry’s own cello transcription of Brahms’ beautiful and popular Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Op. 78.

Then there will be a world premiere by Cleveland, Ohio composer Joel Hoffman, whom the Karps have become close to, championed and even recorded.

This year’s new work is a duo, “Three Paths” for Cello and Piano, with doctor son Christopher Karp) on piano playing with his brother Parry on cello.

Christopher Karp recently took time for an e-mail Q&A with The Ear:

Can you give a brief profile or history of yourself including your professional work and if/how it relates to music?

My professional work focuses on trying to understand, at a molecular level, how inflammatory responses are regulated in health and disease.

It’s a fascinating and profoundly important issue, as it turns out that dysregulated inflammation is essential or contributory to vast array of diseases, including infectious (e.g., sepsis, AIDS), allergic (e.g., asthma, anaphylaxis), autoimmune (e.g., MS, rheumatoid arthritis), metabolic (e.g., type II diabetes and, indeed all of the pernicious resulting conditions of obesity), vascular (e.g., atherosclerosis), degenerative (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) and genetic (e.g., cystic fibrosis) diseases.

Details (somewhat out of date, unfortunately) about our work in these areas can be found at http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/research/div/mol-immunology/fs/head/christopher-karp.htm

My work as a physician/scientist bears little relationship to what I initially planned professionally. Coming from a family focused on music, I went off to college planning to major in music. I ended up getting an undergraduate degree in philosophy, however, and turned to medicine and science several years later. That said, I’ve always stayed very involved with music.

When did you start learning each instrument? What kind of training have you had on each?

I began piano, which I studied with my mother, at the age of 5. At 10, I gladly escaped from the piano when I began studying the violin. When the violin developed into a passion, I planned some sort of career involving the violin, which I studied with Lorand Fenyves (at the University of Toronto) and Robert Koff (at Brandeis University).

It was actually during these years in college that I returned to the piano — purely for relaxation. Over time, playing the piano became just as compelling for me as playing the violin.

Do you prefer one or the other, and why?

I have no real preference. But, given my personal history, the violin tends to feel more like work, the piano more like play. That said, they are both incredibly rewarding, both emotionally and physically.

Do you find one harder or easier? How are they different? How do you keep up on each one?

The two are very difficult to compare. I will say, though, that if I stop practicing the violin for 2-3 days, I know it — I feel out of shape and miserable when I pick it up.

With the piano, it’s very different. I generally say that since I’ve never been in shape on the piano, it’s impossible to be out of shape. Less flippantly, I can be away from the piano for weeks and feel quite comfortable at it when I return to it.

What do you want to say about the piece you will perform at the Karp Family concert?

It is the world premiere of Joel Hoffman’s “Three Paths” for cello and piano, which I commissioned for my brother Parry and myself.

This will actually be the fourth time that we’ve premiered newly commissioned pieces by this wonderful, enormously inventive composer (below) on this series.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the three previous commissions, along with other music by Joel, are currently available on CDs from Albany Records — a fate anticipated for this terrific piece as well.

Do any readers want to add comments about playing two instruments – especially piano and violin?

Perhaps you are a duo instrumentalists and have some thoughts to share?

The Ear wants to hear.

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