Sept. 15 2010 12:00 AM

Ralph Votapek and Walter Verdehr renew a 42-year-old partnership

Ralph Votapek and Walter Verdehr
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16
MSU Music Building Auditorium

Musicians are good at filtering out distractions, but there were some doozies around when pianist Ralph Votapek, 71, and violinst Walter Verdehr, 70, prepared for their first duo recital in 1969.

“I have a memory of practicing Grieg C Minor sonata when people we first walking on the moon,” Votapek said.
Didn’t they stop practicing to look at the TV?

“We probably did,” Votapek said.

Today, those Saturn V rockets are museum pieces, but the two stalwart “V”s of MSU instrumental music will carry on a 42-year tradition of annual duo concerts when they take the stage together at the MSU Music Building Auditorium. They’ll wade into a typically hefty program of Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann and Bartok, with a cinnamon swirl of Spanish composer Joaquin Turina for dessert.

Verdehr and Votapek studied at Juilliard in the 1960s, but never ran into each other.

“Juilliard’s a big place,” Votapek said.

Verdehr first took notice of his future duo partner when a fellow student told him a young hotshot named Ralph Votapek had just won the Van Cliburn competition, a huge coup in the classical world.

Votapek already knew of Verdehr, owing to a different distinction.

“I knew his name because we both began with ‘V’ and he was always on the overdue library list,” Votapek said.
They met for real in the fall of 1968, when both were hired to teach and play at MSU.

Verdehr said they struck up a personal and musical friendship right away.

“It was a happy accident that we both got the job at the same time, enjoyed it here, and stayed here,” Verdehr said.

“We both love the dramatic part of music, the changes of mood.”

In the intervening four-plus decades, the two titans have rampaged through the entire violin-piano literature.

“I don’t know what we haven’t done,” Votapek said.

Verdehr usually picks out the music.

“He makes me work,” Votapek said. “It’s not difficult things for him and silly little accompaniment for me.”

If you want light fare, put on The Captain and Tennille.

Big romantic sonatas are this duo’s stock in trade. Verdehr and Votapek all but own the big romantic works by Brahms, Schumann, Franck, and Faure.

“He’s very strong in the Germanic literature,” Votapek said of Verdehr. “We’ve done all 10 Beethoven sonatas at one time or another.”

When the two of them are storming away on stage, it’s easy to imagine ozone-cracking tests of will in rehearsal. They both said it doesn’t happen.

“We’re both very strong-minded, so once in a while we have differences of opinion,” Votapek said. “We either compromise or do it once his way and once my way.”

“He’s very disciplined musically,” Verdehr said of Votapek. “I tend to be a little more loose.”

Votapek offered only one complaint.

“I’ve been trying to get him to go to a football game, but he won’t do it.”

Verdehr declined to comment.

While other guys argue over Packers versus Bears, Votapek and Verdehr have a running, 40-year-long debate over who is the greater composer, Czech romantic Antonin Dvorak or French impressionist Claude Debussy.

“Being a pianist, I vote for Debussy,” Votapek said.

Verdehr pointed out that all the composers on Thursday’s slate, except possibly Turina, were revolutionaries in their time.

When Brahms was young, he played in a fiery style that inspired his contemporary, arch-romantic Robert Schumann, to call him a musical Messiah.

If you really want to roast Verdehr’s cockles, ask him about Schumann.

“Nobody sounds like Schumann,” Verdehr said. “It’s emotional music, highs and lows, sadness and rage. It’s very volatile and most original.”

Of all the composers on the menu, Beethoven has the most cred as a revolutionary, but Thursday night, Votapek and Verdehr are playing one of his more relaxed and contemplative pieces, his last piano sonata.

A thornier sonata by modernist Bela Bartok ought to perk things up.

“That’s a hair-raising piece,” Verdehr said. “Gypsy gone mad.”