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Howard Karp, Pianist

In our star-struck times fame and notoriety are virtually the same thing. People take it for granted that everyone of any stature must be associated with a media claque or else with the sort of scandals that sell tabloids in supermarket checkout lines.

Yet Madison is home to a man whose genuine modesty, cheerfully quiet manner and unerringly high regard for his colleagues and his students at the UW-Madison School of Music would utterly cloak the scale of his talents and accomplishments: pianist Howard Karp. If you didn't know him and were pass him on the street, you might see nothing more than a tall, slender man with a shock of steel-grey hair, obviously absorbed in his own thoughts. But you would in fact be seeing much, much more.

Madison is rich in fine musicians, it is true. One of the most brilliant gems -- maybe the most, if you're a passionate fan of piano music -- is Karp. Already shining brightly at the time of his first appearances here, he has reached the dazzling pinnacle of true star status, and area audiences pack the hall to hear him play. The local classical music scene has broadened and deepened in recent years, presenting music lovers with a growing stream of first-class concerts. Solo recitals and chamber-music programs dot the calendar of upcoming events with satisfying frequency.

A larger than normal number of such events will feature Karp in the second half of the current season, beginning with the final concert in a series Karp is playing with cellist Parry Karp on January 29th. Karp is also playing solo recitals here in April and May (with another at Northwestern University in April), as well as presenting two performances of the Beethoven Triple Concerto in March: on the 19th in Green Bay with violinist Norman Paulu and cellist Warren Downs, and on the 26th in Madison with violinist Tyrone Greive, cellist Downs and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Not enough, you think? Well, in May, Howard and Frances Karp will travel to China for recitals, master classes, and lecture demonstrations. This prodigious performance schedule is one factor setting Karp (and the Karp family) somewhat apart from other local musicians. A bit paradoxically, perhaps, he himself doesn't care much for the limelight. "I'm not comfortable with too much fuss being made," he says with a smile.

Born in Chicago on Columbus Day, 1929, Karp's early training as a pianist was not promising, he thinks. "I wasn't very good as a child," he says with a characteristially good-humored, soft-spoken smile. "I really didn't enjoy it. I had a teacher who was very strict, and he wouldn't let me play any pieces, just technic."

The word technic (accent on the first syllable) looms large in the life of every classical musician of our century. It was (and is still) widely believed that the only way to master the piano was to focus on the mechanics, spending endless hours playing scales and arpeggios up and down, up and down, in all the keys, then practicing the finger exercises of the famous 19th-century pedagogues like Czerny, Cramer, or Phillipe. "Pieces," that is, repertory by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or the other legendary composer geniuses of bygone times, were denied (or permitted only as rare treats) to young music students by many teachers, usually on the grounds that one must first submit to the strict discipline of conditioning the hand. It's as though one's teacher were a kind of dragon guarding the treasure-cave of real music from any prospect of being profaned by the sullied hands or spirits of the uninitiated.

"Even if I hated a student," Karp laughs, "I wouldn't give them that stuff." One would not readily imagine a person as kindly and generous as Karp hating anyone, and certainly not any student of his. He graciously consented to listen to my playing one afternoon about 20 years ago, as I was groping my way away from the piano and toward the harpsichord, which has become the focus of my own music-making in the years since. I could repeat verbatim today everything he said to me that day, every insight he afforded me by example into the Bach and Brahms I had prepared to show him.

For Karp, technic and music are inseparably intertwined, a unity one imparts to students through opening oneself to the possibilities a score presents, be they physical, intellectual, historical, or personal challenges. It is this unity in music, I'm convinced, that explains why Karp's genius has been able to flower in such an extraordinary way, both as a pianist and as a guiding light for those students lucky enough to bask in it.

As Karp's musical study continued, he found inspiration in what the other students were playing. While still quite young, Karp happened to hear Horowitz in Chicago. "From then on I realized what music could really be, and I certainly worked much harder after that." Work is central to Karp's feeling about himself. Asked about his talent, he replies with obvious genuineness, "I don't consider that I have any talent, but I work very hard."

An important influence on the budding musician was a phenomenon unique to Chicago in the 40s and 50s, the Allied Arts Piano Series, biweekly recitals at Orchestra Hall by the world's great artists of the instrument, as well as by the brightest of the emerging young stars. Concerts by the Chicago Symphony and summer outdoor concerts at the shell in Grant Park on the lakefront in downtown Chicago also played a role in opening Karp's eyes to the piano's repertory.

It would be hard to overstate the importance to young musicians of easy access to great live performances, for they become something like the fixed stars of an imaginative musical universe. More than half a century later, Karp still carries fresh in his memory the one occasion, February 12, 1942, of hearing Rachmaninov, said by more than one musician to have been the greatest pianist who ever lived.

After high school, Karp went to Oberlin College, where at least two great things happened. He began to study with one of the great teachers of pianists, Jack Radunsky. There he met Frances, also a pianist in Radunsky's class, setting the stage for what has since become a small dynasty of musicians, for not long after they married. Then came the next generation of musical Karps. Their son Parry was to become a cellist, now famous in his own right as a soloist and chamber musician, a member of the Pro Arte Quartet. Their other son, Christopher, though not a professional musician, is a violinist of considerable ability.

The chronology of Karp's training eventually brought him to New York, where he studied with the legendary teacher Rosina Lhevinne at the Julliard School. "From Lhevinne I developed the confidence that I could continue on my own," he says.

Karp's career as a teacher took him to Kentucky, then to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and finally in 1972 to Madison. This last move was unusual in that he gave up a position as a full professor at the very prestigious Music School in Urbana to come to a much smaller, less developed program here. "I have never regretted this step," he told me, "because for one thing there were greater needs here and meeting them was more of a challenge." In addition, the residency of the Viennese pianist Paul Badura-Skoda had sparked his interest, and there was also the Pro Arte Quartet and pianist colleague Gunnar Johansen. "Gunnar," Karp says, "was in a class by himself, an extraordinary person, a pianist and musican like no other."

Karp's arrival at the School of Music overlapped the final years of Johansen's tenure as a sort of larger-than-life inspiration to a long succession of piano students, of which I was one (1958-62).

Despite his remark above, Karp is like Johansen in that he draws considerable satisfaction from the kind of powerful enabling that his guidance is able to provide to aspiring young players. "My students have taught me as much as my teachers did," says Karp, warming up to a subject clearly close to his heart. "I've been enormously privileged in my teaching, and in fact the number of graduate students I've been able to guide through the doctoral program is getting to be pretty large. The thing that continues to surprise and delight me is that they have such diverse gifts, bringing with them so many different kinds of ability. Most challenging of all are the ones whose potentials have yet to be fully revealed when they are still starting out."

With respect to both teaching and and concert-going, the local scene has witnessed major changes over the years Karp has been here. In the years before Karp's arrival, students could be seen in great numbers at the Union Theater's two annual concert series, for example. But the high-school years, when it's so important to become serious about one's musical training, are now less supportive, for pre-college students have often never been to a live performance of classical music. "I've admired those students who really didn't have the advantages of being encouraged by their parents and peers as I was, yet who manage to catch fire when they get to college," Karp says. "We begin all over again every year, introducing music to young people for whom it's a completely new experience."

In what has now become a local tradition, the Karp family launches the Madison musical season every fall with a Labor Day concert. These concerts have been very successful, not only because they come before the academic demands of a new semester have asserted themselves, but also because the Karps have made an effort to bring to each program fresh repertory they've not played before. There may be still another form of freshness, for there are hints that Howard and Frances have perhaps given rise to yet another generation of musicians, their grandchildren by Parry Karp and violist Katrin Talbot, whose 5-year-old daughter Ariana is now studying the cello.

This tradition almost lost its patriarch in 1986, when Karp underwent surgery to correct a heart problem. As Frances waited -- and worried -- the operation went on and on, well beyond the scheduled time, until at last it had been nine hours! Since he was a doctor, Christopher was able to find out there had been serious complications: Howard Karp had died, that is, suffered cardiac arrest on the operating table, and it had not proved easy to revive him. The experience was to bear musical results, for after the long convalescence, Karp told me (without saying then how serious it had been) how he came to make one of his greatest performances, playing the Brahms Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major with the University Symphony Orchestra. "I'd always loved it, of course, and I'd always wanted to do it, but of course it's enormous and enormously difficult. After the operation I realized that if I were ever going to do it, I'd better not wait, because you never know what will happen." Here his always soft voice trails off. That performance is one of many standing out in my memory as peak musical experiences, though at the time I had no inkling of the dramatic events that in part gave rise to it.

Indeed, the history of Karp performances is strewn with memorable events. His first solo recital was an electric event, as it included a performance, the like of which has not been heard here since, of the Liszt Sonata in B Minor. A work of about a half-hour's duration, the Liszt Sonata is one of a handful of titanically difficult pieces for the instrument. All those hundreds of hours of childhood technical practicing -- playing scales in double octaves, negotiating giant leaps and skips at breakneck speed, amassing thunderous chords -- finally pay off when this is the work to be played. As it happens, Karp, like most serious performers, is sometimes fairly nervous when playing in public. Nerves often give rise to things one didn't perhaps foresee. Whether nerves or design, on this occasion, Karp sailed into treacherous octave passages at a tempo that stops the heart of anyone who knows the piece well, because you think, "Uh-oh, no one can do it that fast!" Except Karp did, of course. Don't ask me how, for I know it can't be done.

Impossibility defied in one way or another is often a feature of great performances, of chamber music as well as solo music. Another indelible Karp performance (early in his tenure here, though I forget the year) featured the Beethoven Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 1, in D Minor. Called the "Ghost Trio," the work's slow movement really does evoke something very evanescent and spooky, slowly winding its way about the mind in the dead of night. Violinist Thomas Moore, cellist Warren Downs, and pianist Karp achieved that evening a kind of magic that eclipses all recordings I know of the work, as well as all other performances I've heard.

Surpassing all previous achievements seems to be something of a trademark for Karp. Naturally, memory is intensified when something in a performance touches us personally. This was especially true for me at the 1991 Labor Day concert, a program of Liszt, Mozart, Barber, and Brahms, a memorial for Gunnar Johansen, my own great teacher and mentor, who had died the preceding May. The program opened with three pieces of Liszt. At the time I said it was "highly contemplative music, full of unresolved emotions, and featuring stark, almost bleak inner landscapes, the three pieces called forth the image of two masters now gone -- Liszt and Johansen -- in the performance of a present master, Karp. Quite simply, it was some of the finest playing I've heard in many a year, and I can't imagine a performance serving the memory of Johansen any better." (Parenthetically, I am writing this on what would have been Johansen's 88th birthday.)

When something moves you as deeply as Karp's playing inevitably does me, it would be pointless to claim I can maintain an objective critical stance. Part of it is simply the style of the playing. Not many people play like Johansen or Karp these days. That kind of introspection or seeking after an inner meaning to the score is rare in young pianists these days. Quite often individuality has become a rather external quirkiness, difference for its own sake, when it used to be focussed less on the player and more on the composer. Karp, who consistently plays down ego, clearly belongs to this older school, and because it can't last forever, one starts to hold it more and more dear.

If you ask him what he appreciates most about his career as it has finally manifested itself, the focus is emphatically on others. "I feel so fortunate," he says, "for almost even more than being able to play myself I've been privileged by my colleagues and students, by the breadth and depth of the repertory we've been able to perform together. There's really nothing so wonderful as playing with your family and friends!" Not for nothing, I'm sure, do we use this ambiguous word "play" to describe what musicians do. For there is a kind of eternal youth and renewal in doing something so enjoyable, and there aren't many people who embody that enjoyment as fully as Howard Karp.

Isthmus, January, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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