Lexington Philharmonic’s new principal cellist will be right at home

Benjamin Karp and his chocolate lab Lily in his studio at the University of Kentucky, where he is the cello professor. Karp will play his first concert as principal cellist of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra Nov. 16. (c) Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

During his 21 years in Lexington, University of Kentucky associate cello professor Benjamin Karp has become one of Lexington’s most recognizable musicians through his fluid playing style and a distinctive shock of curly hair. But until now, he hasn’t been a regular presence in the city’s leading arts group, the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.

Most of his orchestral work has been 80 miles up Interstate 75, as principal cello for the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, a post he left 10 years ago, and with regular work with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

“A couple years ago, I went on the European tour with the Cincinnati Symphony and played the fabulous halls in Paris and Amsterdam and all over Germany and Spain, and nobody here knows,” Karp says.

Over the years, Karp has played as a soloist with the Philharmonic and occasionally as a substitute. But audiences are about to get to know him a lot better this week as he debuts as the Philharmonic’s principal cellist. He is one of nine new members of the orchestra and four new principal players who will debut at the Nov. 16 classics concert.

The longtime holder of that seat, Suanne Blair, is retiring after three decades. The opening had Karp, 56, sharpening his auditioning skills.

“I think it’s been 15 years since I have taken on an audition,” says Karp, who holds degrees from Indiana University and Yale. “So I had to make sure I could get back into audition shape and do it.

“I was practicing the excerpts five hours a day for a couple of weeks to bring them back up. And after that, I played for a number of people, because you can’t simulate an audition experience in the studio. You have to just play in front of people and see what that does for you.”

One musician for whom he often played while preparing for the audition was his wife, Margie Karp, a violinist and the Philharmonic’s assistant concertmaster.

“She’s a wonderful listener and critic,” Karp says.

When he was in St. Louis recently, he also arranged to be heard by three cellists in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to get their feedback.

“I got very nervous playing for them,” he says. “They all had good things to say, but the process of playing for them told me a great deal about what would happen to me in the audition.”

Overall, he says, the process of preparing for the audition made him more detail-oriented and a closer listener, all things he hopes to carry into his new post.

It was a job he says he really wanted, which is why he was willing to put himself on the line to get it. After all, before this audition, he enjoyed a profile in the music community as a gifted artist swimming in bigger ponds.

“I did feel that given my position at the university, I had a lot at stake,” Karp says. “If I didn’t get the job, what would happen? How would that impact my ability to recruit students or whatever status I might have. But I decided it was worth the risk and I would deal with it afterwards if it didn’t work out.”

The job is far from just sitting in the first chair, ahead of all the other cellists in the orchestra. Karp will have to set the cello bowings for each piece the orchestra plays, based on the bowings set by concertmaster Daniel Mason. He is essentially responsible for the section.

“Once rehearsals start, you’re responsible for bringing in your section, leading your section,” Karp says. “If someone comes in wrong, it’s the principal’s fault, basically. If a section plays out of tune, it’s the principal’s fault. Balance, playing over, playing under … is the principal’s job as well.”

Karp says that it’s a responsibility he enjoys and that he likes being among the inner circle of the orchestra along with the conductor and other principal players.

Karp says he plans to continue doing some work in Cincinnati. But overall, he is looking forward to a life of less driving and more time with his wife, as they can go to rehearsal together.

“I’m looking forward to being seen on stage locally,” Karp says, laughing, before taking his quiet chocolate lab, Lily, out for a walk. “It should be fun.”

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