Lexington family’s string quartet to be showcased at chamber music event

Jonathan, Aaron, Margie and Benjamin Karp on a hike during a family vacation in Tucson. Photos by James K. Bashkin.

The Chamber Music Society of Central Kentucky will pull off quite a feat Sunday afternoon: It will get the Karp ­family together at one time.

For years, the busy Karps have enjoyed individually prominent roles in Lexington music. Dad Benjamin is a cello professor at the University of ­Kentucky, a soloist and chamber ­musician in the area, and he is an ­adjunct professor at Indiana University. Mother Margie is the assistant concertmaster for the Lexington Philharmonic; is on the ­adjunct faculty at UK, teaching violin and viola; and is a chamber musician.

Before going to ­Washington University in St. Louis, older son ­Jonathan was the ­concertmaster of the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras’ ­Symphony Orchestra. Younger son Aaron, a junior in the math, science and ­technology program at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was the principal ­violist in the ­Kentucky All-State Orchestra.

Occasionally, the Karps join forces as a string quartet, as at the Chamber Society’s annual Chamber Players of Central Kentucky concert, featuring area musicians. The Karps will play the first ­movement of Felix ­Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 and Dmitri ­Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8.

Margie says the Shostakovich was her sons’ idea. “Both of them just love that piece. Both of them have played parts of it before with different quartets with CKYO and different groups. Then we went to see the Emerson String Quartet at Centre College last year, where they played that, and they said, ‘We have to play that.’”

It will continue a familial collaboration that dates to days when Jonathan was just starting to play violin and Aaron would sit on the floor and bang on a drum.

Neither child was exactly a musical prodigy. Benjamin says their instruments took a fair share of abuse, including fingerboards that had to be glued back on. But they were born into a family where music is a natural part of life.

Jonathan, Margie, Aaron and Benjamin Karp practice for a family performance.

Benjamin and Margie met in 1980 as ­students at Indiana ­University. He was getting a master’s degree in cello performance; she was an ­undergraduate, studying ­violin. They also played in the Evansville ­Symphony ­Orchestra, going to ­Evansville, Ind., late on Fridays for several rehearsals before a Saturday night concert.

“They put us up in the Executive Inn, which was pretty deluxe by college-­student standards,” ­Benjamin says.

Margie says they got to know each other on those trips. Soon they married ­and moved to Florida, where they taught and played. One of Margie’s claims to fame was that she was principal second violinist of the Florida ­Orchestra, which played when Whitney Houston ­memorably sang The Star-Spangled ­Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl.

“It was astounding to me, being very close to Whitney Houston, that this ­amazing voice came from this ­incredibly petite person,” Margie says.

They moved to ­Lexington soon after that, when ­Benjamin was offered the cello faculty position at UK.

The Karps say they never put pressure on their sons to pursue music, but the boys naturally became interested as they heard Mom and Dad practice and saw groups of musicians come over for chamber group practices.

Jonathan started asking to learn to play violin when he was 2.

“He thought everybody played the violin because that’s what he saw at our house,” Margie says.

Jonathan and Aaron both took to the instrument and attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts from fourth to eighth grades. Jonathan continued, but Aaron chose to go to the math, science and technology program at Dunbar.

Eventually the family started playing together, with the boys often ­initiating practice ­sessions. For a long time, Jonathan and Aaron played violin and Margie was the violist, until a fortuitous event.

Jonathan’s CKYO string quartet was about to lose its violist to graduation. Wondering how to replace him, someone suggested that Aaron could take up viola.

“It was like the Life cereal commercial,” Margie says. “Get Mikey to do it.”

Aaron was open to the idea, and his big brother was happy to have him do it. Aaron, his parents say, took the viola seriously, even ­going to Brevard Music Camp in North Carolina, where ­Benjamin and Margie teach in the summer, as a violist.

Now he has the viola chair in the family quartet to himself, and Margie and her oldest son are the violinists. She will be the first ­violinist Sunday, and she says ­Jonathan is happy with that because he is busy with his freshman year at college. Neither Karp son is sure what role music will play in his life; both are interested in science. But Benjamin and Margie say they have ­appreciated raising them in a city that supported their artistic endeavors.

“I used to get picked on for carrying my cello around,” Benjamin says. “But here, it’s never been a problem. I play basketball, I play soccer, I play music. It’s just part of what they do.”

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