The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The delightful and impressive 36th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert offers a glimpse into music history in the home and a wondrously talented family. Plus, duo-pianists Varshavski and Shapiro perform Saturday night at Farley’s.

September 4, 2013
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REMINDER: Duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro (below) will perform a program of Mozart, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m at Farley’s House of Pianos with a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 the day of the performance. For more information visit:

Stanislava Varshavski-Diana Shapiro

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.


By John W. Barker

For 36 years, pianists Howard and Frances Karp (below)  have been opening the autumn season at the UW School of Music with a concert on the night of Labor Day.  Over the course of time, the Karp’s family circle has grown, and has been incorporated into these annual events.

howard and frances karp

I am ashamed to say that, for whatever reasons (forgivable or otherwise), this year’s has been the first one I have managed to catch up with.  That I have been missing a lot of remarkable music-making was made clear with the Karps’ program at Mills Hall on the evening of September 2.

What I recognized, too, was that these Karp concerts have come to be a window into a long-lost practice — that of music-making as a central activity of family life.  For past generations, long before the proverbial distractions of phonograph, radio, television, the Internet and Facebook, families would find satisfying entertainment together by gathering around the piano for evenings of music, both vocal and instrumental, and literature readings.  In effect, the Karps were inviting me, and the several hundred others of the audience, into their parlor for a feast of familial cultural fun.  To be sure, by a family of gifted musicians –mostly, but by no means exclusively, professional ones.

The program opened with music by Handel.  It began life as one of his Op. 2 Trio Sonatas for Two Violins and Continuo, here given as a Sonata for Two Cellos and Piano.  But any puristic protest would be irrelevant in this case, for what the Karps offered was what generations of players might do with music published for a consuming public that was bound to play it with whatever resources were around at the moment.  And so we heard three generations of Karps – – pianist Howard, his son, the brilliant cellist Parry, and the latter’s daughter Ariana (all below) — enjoy making this music their own.

Parry and Ariana with Howard Karp 2013

Parry Karp joined his brother, Christopher, a most effective pianist (also a violinist, but a doctor by profession and a distinguished medical scientist), in Beethoven’s Sonata No 5  in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 102, No. 2, one of the portal works into the composer’s Late Period, music of probing power.

Christopher and Parry Karp 2013

Perhaps the most fascinating material on the program was embodied in two other undertakings.  One was a work of 1988 by John Harbison, entitled “Novermber 19, 1828”.  The title is the date of Franz Schubert’s death, and the work, for piano quartet, is  a vision of that composer’s mind at the moment of his passing.

In its four movements, Harbison (below) has created snatches of could-be-by-Schubert music, including one actual fragment, to re-imagine the earlier master’s style in latter-day terms.  It culminates in Harbison’s fulfilment of the contrapuntal exercise, a projected fugue based on the letter-to-note coding of Schubert’s name, that the latter never carried out himself.  Music, in all, of clever but very moving homage from one master to another.


For that work Frances and Parry were joined by Parry’s wife, violist Katrin Talbot, and the family friend Suzanne Beia (all below), who is Parry’s colleague in the Pro Arte Quartet.

Suzanne Beia, Katrin Talbot, Frances and Parry Karp 2013

The first half was noteworthy also for the variety of styles that composers used to compose fugues — from the transparency of Handel to the thorniness of Beethoven.

After the Harbison, the other fascinating novelty occupied the second half of the program.  Howard and Francis merged in playing the four-hand piano arrangements, made by Mendelssohn himself, of nine of the 12 orchestral pieces of incidental music (Op. 61) that he wrote for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Interspersed among these movements were passages from the play itself, read by the granddaughters Ariana (below right) and Isabel Karp (below left) —  Parry’s and Katrin’s daughters —  both of whom are budding young actresses.  They even sang the parts for two choral numbers, the Fairies’ lullaby to Titania (omitted in the printed program listing) and the finale.

It was just what a talented family might put together for an evening’s romp, generations back, and delightful fun for the audience.

Howard, Frances, Isabel and Ariana Karp 2013

The artistic durability of Howard and Frances Karp is remarkable, but so also is the family tree of talent they have been generating.

All we can say is: Keep those Karps Koming!

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