Music-history books don't tell us much about husband-and-wife teams who played classical music together. These couples always existed, but their footfalls hardly make a sound in music's past, the stomping ground of the solitary genius.
But in the 21st century, the intimate art of couples may become as iconic as the star turns of soloists. Locally, pianists Howard and Frances Karp hold the record in this difficult, delicate art. Their rendition of Mozart's brainy "Sonata in D," K. 448, is unequaled. International stars Wu Han (piano) and David Finckel (cello) will bring their couple's art to town on March 2 at the Wisconsin Union Theater.
It's not always easy being a classical couple. Many are in academia, and a college often gives one a job but not the other. So they live apart, or one gives up a dream so the other can prosper. Sometimes pandemonium takes over when they raise families on already challenged schedules.
In Madison, we have several classical couples who've withstood these pressures, finding a way to make beautiful music together.
UW professor John Aley, principal trumpet for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, practices with a metronome the size of a credit card hanging from the earpiece of his glasses. Not much penetrates his practice bubble. But his wife, Anne, assistant first horn with the MSO, has been known to distract him.
"We met at the Aspen Music Festival in 1979," John says. "My friend said, ‘John, have you met Anne?' I turned around, there she was, and that was it. Everything else just went away."
"Early on I swore that I wouldn't marry a musician because I wanted a perspective outside of my own," Anne says. "But when I met John, there was irresistible synchronicity."
A long-distance relationship followed, with John in New York and Anne in Toronto. During their year in New York together, John went full throttle, playing with the American Brass Quintet, P.D.Q. Bach, the American Symphony Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra. He also held down a couple of teaching jobs at Brooklyn College of Music and Connecticut State.
With all the touring, recording, practicing and performing, being able to transition in an instant has kept the couple afloat, and a little imagination goes a long way.
"We got married on Sept. 9, and we never got to celebrate our wedding anniversary," says John. "There were always rehearsals, there were always concerts. So when we hit the 25-year mark, we said, ‘We're going to have 25 dates, even if it means we're just going to go out for tea before we go to work.' You have to be creative with time and keep a sense of humor about it."
Besides playing with the MSO, John plays with the Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Anne, a member of the Oakwood Chamber Players, is also program manager for the Summer Music Clinic for high school and junior high school students at the UW-Madison. With two brass players in the house, the couple pride themselves on having children, Ian and Megan, who can sleep through anything.
Sole Nero is the only piano/percussion act in town. The music is mysterious, dramatic, ethereal, funky and daring. The piano's lyrical style contrasts well with percussive punctuations, but it also stands up to the drums as hammers pound strings into motion. Jessica Johnson, assistant professor of piano and piano pedagogy at UW-Madison, and husband Anthony Di Sanza, associate professor of percussion at UW-Madison, started their duo in 2000. Sole Nero ("Black Sun") is about yin and yang.
"Much of the music we play focuses on contrast," says Johnson. "But we feel that we complement each other in sort of a sun/moon way. Tony is more positive than I, so when we play together, there's balance."
Johnson grew up on a tobacco farm in Dunn, N.C. Di Sanza, from Cleveland, looks like her opposite. He has a dark, Latin look, while she is fair, with long red hair. Neither can see themselves with anyone else.
"Giving each other space is very critical," Johnson says. "I have had other relationships where it was impossible because they didn't understand the need. If the practicing isn't going well, you're in a funk, or you're elated if you're in a particular surge. There's a manic element to the process."
They met at the University of Michigan in 1994 and use something akin to ESP to connect on stage. "I can feel a vibe from Tony that, if it's someone I'm collaborating with on the spur of the moment, would have to be planned," Johnson says. "There's this chemistry, this understanding that's so wonderful."
"When we're rehearsing and she thinks I'm making a mistake, she tells me directly, as I would her," says Di Sanza. "Even with a friend or colleague whom you've played with a lot, it's not the same. Working with your partner is unique because it's all wide open."
With two professors in the house, the dinner hour is a tumble of ideas, with their 4-year-old daughter, Maggie, chiming in. Maggie, incidentally, is becoming quite the musician. She goes on tour with the couple and plays all the instruments, but is particularly fond of the violin and "plano."
In the 1980s, singers Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, co-directors of the Madison Early Music Festival, were freelance musicians living in uptown Manhattan. Growing up in Detroit, Cheryl was a junior cantor in her synagogue, and Paul was groomed in the art of song by his musical family in St. Petersburg, Fla. They met in New York when Paul auditioned for the Waverly Consort, which Cheryl was already a member of. When performing together, they cherish the unspoken support that they feel from each other, an understanding they describe as automatic.
Their specialty is Renaissance music, but as freelancers they sang almost anything that came their way. "We sang for Jim Henson's funeral and George Balanchine's funeral," says Cheryl. "When Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, there was a huge celebration that we were part of."
In the 1994 movie Dead Air, the Rowes sang in a gospel choir. "It was a horrible movie, but we made good money for a day's work," says Cheryl.
In this fast-paced world that turns on a dime, perspective is a must. "When you're performing and striving for glory or whatever it is, it can take on an unreal importance, and you feel like you're hanging on to life and death," says Paul. "I remember a ‘B Minor Mass' I did, and it was not the greatest performance I had ever done. Those things happen. When I came home, our daughter Alison, who was 2, was just like, ‘Hey, how's it going?!' It didn't matter if I had been out laying bricks. She was just happy to see me."
The Rowes left New York after their second daughter, Julia, was born. In 1998 they moved to Madison, where Paul is voice professor at UW-Madison and Cheryl has a private voice studio. They still travel the world with their music.
When Sally Chisholm, violist for the Pro Arte Quartet, met violinist Gene Purdue in 1965, they were high school students playing in All State Orchestra in Norman, Okla. They went to competing high schools, but that didn't stop the magnetism they felt when they started performing together.
"There are some people that you sit down and play with and immediately feel that you hear and feel similar things about the music," says Purdue. "Sally is definitely one of the people that I feel that camaraderie with."
"The first time I remember playing with Gene was in a slow movement of a Ravel quartet," says Chisholm. "I sensed humanity in the way he played."
While undergrads at the University of Oklahoma, Chisholm and Purdue formed the Thouvenel String Quartet. It helped keep modern American music on the map, commissioning works of contemporary giants like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. Had you been in Midland, Texas, in the 1970s, you might have experienced its intimate artistry and crisp rhythms in one of Ernst Krenek's delightfully knotty string quartets. In Lhasa, Tibet, in July 1987, just before the Tibetan uprising, you may have heard the faint rat-a-tat-tat of artillery fire as Thouvenel set up to play Dvorák outside of Johkang Temple.
"The people started dancing all around," says Chisholm. "They understood it."
Thouvenel ended a few years after they moved to Madison, where Chisholm landed the job with Pro Arte and the UW-Madison in 1991. Today, she and Purdue play together in orchestras and at summer festivals. Purdue is a full-time violin teacher in a studio he calls "Buddy Conservatory of Music." It's named after the couple's cat, which meows when students play out of tune.
Purdue thinks that couples who play music together have an edge over the solo musician. "If you spend your life with another musician who experiences music maybe a little differently, you can help each other. In that way, I think that couples can achieve more."
Tyrone Greive, concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and his wife, Janet, an MSO cellist, keep a schedule that you could set your watch by.
"We're up by 6, and Tyrone has his fiddle in hand by 6:30," Janet says. "We listen to the news and eat breakfast at 7, and Tyrone practices until he has to teach or go to a rehearsal. The only time we vary from our schedule is maybe the Friday after Thanksgiving, or when we're on vacation."
The agenda fits the couple like a comfortable pair of house slippers.
Janet, from Vermillion, S.D., and Tyrone, from Sioux City, Iowa, have been performing together since 1964. It all started with Beethoven's "Triple Concerto" with the Sioux Falls Symphony. The concerto is noble and upbeat, with lyrical cello lines following violin solos and vice versa. It suits the Greives.
"Janet will often finish my sentences and pull words out of my mouth before I say them and vice versa," Tyrone says.
In the MSO, they play to each other. "If one or the other is not playing, the concert experience is not the same, even in a big orchestra," says Janet.
They still love what they do and work as hard at it today as when they married in 1968. "Some people eat and sleep music and that's all," says Janet. "The focus is too narrow. We're not that way. Music is important, yes, but we have to be aware of the real world and other things that are going on."
So you might see the Greives walking in the mall together or enjoying old movies. But they also have separate interests.
"I bicycle, Janet doesn't," Tyrone says. "I have a model train set. Janet says, ‘I've seen the train go around once and that's enough.' But once is never enough for me."
"Tyrone, he's like a kid," Janet says.
But in a performance, the Greives don't fool around. In a recent performance of Bohuslav Martinu's "Duo No. 1," the Greives held together nicely in the long passages of unison playing, but freedom reigned when the writing required each instrument to be off on its own. Emotional candor gave the complex piece simplicity. You could tell they had been playing together for a very long time.
After the concerts are over and the stage door closed, he carries her cello and she carries his violin.