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Howard Karp's Last Concert

On Tuesday, pianist Howard Karp will walk onto the stage of Mills Concert Hall to play Beethoven's fourth piano concerto with the UW Symphony Orchestra, a performance that will mark the end of his brilliant 28-year career as a professor of piano in the UW's School of Music. The concert coincides with the release of a two-CD set, The Art of Howard Karp: Concert Recordings 1964-2000, issued by the School of Music.

"It seemed essential that he should be honored in some special way for the invaluable legacy of his magnificent artistry and dedication to his students," says former Karp student Bill Lutes, who compiled the CD.

When I went to Karp's home to interview him about his career, he showed me a 1998 article by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. Rebutting the absurd notion that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach," Tommasini referred to Karp's playing this way: "An elegant musician, a romantic by nature whose performances are spacious, imaginative and technically exquisite."

I exclaimed, "Ah, exactly the right word: 'spacious'!" The spaciousness of Karp's music-making is matched by a largeness of spirit, above all by gratitude toward his fellow musicians and students.

Karp chose wisely when he gave up a tenured full professorship at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 1972 to accept a faculty position here, leaving a very prestigious music school to take on an assignment in a much less developed program. "There were greater needs here," he says, "and meeting them was a more of a challenge."

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 with characteristic generosity, "was in a class by himself, an extraordinary person, a pianist and musician like no other."

I can attest that Johansen reciprocated Karp's esteem, for we sat together at Karp's first solo recital in Madison and were both flabbergasted by his performance of the Liszt Sonata in B Minor, one of the Himalayan summits of the whole piano repertory, for both technical wizardry and musical mastery. When it was over, we looked at one another and said, "Good God, how amazing!" This same performance is included in the new CD set.

Tuesday's concert will be the tenth time Karp has played with the university orchestras. "I'm grateful to have been asked to do things I couldn't do on my own," he says. "It sets up a special challenge for me."

One unforeseen challenge in Karp's life was open-heart surgery in 1986, which he very nearly didn't survive. The recuperation was slow and painful. But the next year he played the Brahms B-Flat major piano concerto with the UW Symphony, to rave reviews. At the time I asked him how it happened he'd never performed it before. "After my operation," he told me, "I figured I'd better not wait to do things I've always wanted to do."

Fate has been kind, it turns out, and Howard Karp is still with us. The unique joy of hearing this outstanding musician will fortunately not end with his retirement, for the Karp family (including Karp's wife Frances, sons Parry and Christopher and Parry's wife Katrin Talbot) plans to continue the Labor Day concerts that have long marked the beginning of Madison's fall musical season. "Fortunately," Karp says, "Parry is a member of the faculty, which will allow us to continue that tradition."

Karp, now 70, has no regrets about either his career or his retirement. "I'm delighted by the new young pianist who will take my position [the name has not yet been publicly released], so I really have no need to continue teaching. This opens a new chapter for us, letting us do more things together without being limited by the school calendar."

Travel is certainly among the possibilities, with Karp mentioning such natural wonders like fjords and such culture monuments as Bayreuth, home of the great Wagner festival.

Karp has never sought the limelight and is genuinely modest about his great accopmlishments, preferring to direct his interest and enjoyment outward. When I talked to him earlier about this, he said, "I feel so fortunate, 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!" The word "play" is an apt description for what a musician like Karp does: for all the work required, it is enormous fun to make music, and his gentle laughter confirms this.

Isthmus, April, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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