The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The 34th Karp Family Labor Day Concert ushers in a new UW concert season with beautiful music that was beautifully performed

September 8, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The answer was there from his very his first touch of the piano keys.

So many of us wondered: Had Howard Karp, the patriarch of Madison’s First Family of Music and a retired and beloved longtime piano teacher at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, recovered from life-threatening surgery enough to play in the 34th annual Karp Family Labor Day concert?

And then the trim, tall pianist came out on stage, sat down and simply put his hands on the keyboard. Gently he opened his cellist son Parry’s transcription of Brahms’ beautiful Violin Sonata No. 1 with those simple but sublime bass chords. And the familiar tone was there, rich as ever.

Howard was back, and the sense of quiet, autumnal ecstasy that he, Parry and of course Brahms conveyed continued through the entire sonata, with its great balance and dynamics and clarity of parts. It was the perfect performance of the perfect work to close the evening’s program. You could hear the love and affection as father and son played to, adjusted to, each other.

Howard had a lot of friends and admirers in the audience, and they justly felt both reassured and rewarded. So they applauded loudly, cheered and stood up, and brought him and Parry (below, in my photo) back for three curtain calls.

But truth be told, the whole concert and all the players proved outstanding.

The concert opened with mother pianist Frances Karp performing with Parry and his violist wife Katrin Talbot plus Pro Arte violinist Suzanne Beia (all below) in a lovely reading of Frank Bridge’s short “Phantasy” Piano Quartet (1910).

It is an appealing work that deserves much wider hearing. And it is hard to imagine a better or more nuanced performance. Frances is not a big woman, but she is a big pianist.

Then youngest son Christopher Karp (below left), a medical doctor who usually performs on the violin, played the piano with his brother Parry (below right) in the world premiere of a piece that Christopher had commissioned from Cleveland composer Joel Hoffman –“Three Paths for Cello and Piano” – who was in the audience.

The work is an accessible and rhythmic piece that had some calm and repetitive Asian minimalism, kind of Zen-like in its atmosphere and austerity, as well as spikier, less relaxed passages. Clearly, Hoffman wanted to exploit Parry’s hearty lyricism and Christopher’s keen sense of precision. He succeeded.

The first half ended with Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1904) in a transcription for cello. Once again, Frances drew a big sound from the piano and blended with Parry (below) in this early piece that is less riskily modern than the composer’s later works.

This kind of concert, so filled with empathy and love, embodies my kind of family values – not the demagogues who bash gay marriage or gay adoption or people who aren’t religious or mothers who have children out of marriage.

And I don’t think I am alone, judging by the enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers who packed the post-concert reception in the music school’s courtyard.

Music school director John W.  Schaffer opened the well programmed and well performed concert by reminding listeners that this concert marked the 115th anniversary of the school, which remains in the top 5 percent of public music schools.

He noted that some 200 to 300 hours of music will be available on the UW on the school website and Event Calendar (look for the little loudspeaker icon) at any one time. So if you missed the Karp Family concert, it should, like most others, be on-line within 48 hours.

Here’s a link:

He also added that the free admission policy, implemented last year, actually raised more scholarship money than when admission was charged for the faculty Concert Series.

So maybe grateful listeners will mail in donations and honor the Karps as well as the young  “Karps in the making,” so to speak.

This much is certain: The school year, which usually sees more than 300 musical events at the UW –- almost all of them free — couldn’t have begun with a more auspicious concert or on a more welcome note. It should be an excellent year.

But you be the critic.

If you attended the Karp concert, what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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