The Season Finale of the City Symphony Festival this Saturday

Stefan Kartman, principal cellist of the City Symphony Festival, will be featured in the orchestra’s rendition of Antonin (German publishers Germanized his Czech name to Anton) Dvorak Cello Concerto, Op. 104 in B minor. Brahms, a master of orchestral composition, proofread Dvorak’s score and reportedly said, “If I had known it was possible to compose such a cello concerto, I would have tried it myself!” Needless to say, the concerto is a technical challenge and a delight for listeners. Statements from the solo cello will stay with you long after you return home.

The Festival City Symphony Orchestra, formerly the Milwaukee Civic Orchestra, has been here for nearly a century with a current mission to extend the reach of classical music throughout the Milwaukee area. Thanks in part to the generosity of Franklyn Essenberg, all of their concerts are free to the public. Carter Simmons, the current musical director, will be on the podium. The program will also include works by Franz Schubert Overture to Rosamunde, D. 644 and that of Edward Elgar Enigmatic Variations, Op. 36.

Stefan Kartman is a professor of music at UWM and his wife Jeannie Yu is a concert pianist. Together they perform as Florestan Duo. I know firsthand the love of music found in this family. Their son, Jonas, plays the violin and I constantly pester them to invite me to their “rehearsals”.

I spoke with Kartman about the music, the tradition and the preparation needed as a soloist and for this particular concerto which is full of technical challenges.

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His own parents met at Julliard, as did he and his wife. Kartman’s father, Myron, studied with Karl Döll, a pupil of Joseph Joachim, a friend and adviser to Brahms for violin compositions and chamber music. And Brahms was Dvorak’s mentor. There is therefore an intimate and immediate link from Kartman over 100 years ago to the composer and performers of that time.

Kartman refers to this tradition and training as “Passing On”. It’s a subtle way to help others find the sound closest to what the composer had in mind when first performing the music. The first performance of this concerto took place on March 19, 1896 at Queen’s Hall in London, under the direction of Dvorak and Leo Stern on the cello.

“Passing the baton” – how you hold the bow, attack a chord at the frog (bottom) or at the tip of the bow, or the angle the hair makes with the strings. All of this and more is heard and adjusted as the musicians strive to find the sound the composer intended. A musical memory heard then shared with the next generation. Something he and Jeannie do with their son and their students.

Kartman shared his connection with Brahms and Dvorak. It was Brahms who encouraged Dvorak to go to “The New World” with Franz Kneisel, a pupil of Joachim. Dvorak headed the National Conservatory of Music, later the Julliard School (small world). Kneisel taught chamber music and violin and played in a quartet with a cellist named Willem Willeke. Willeke was the teacher of Harvey Shapiro, one of Kartman’s teachers. Pass it on and pass it on.

Which brings us quickly to this gig. Kartman first studied this piece in the 80s with Harvey Shapiro. As with other performances, months before the concert date, practice begins in earnest – hours each day. And for this he rehearses with Yu (the orchestral scores are transcribed for piano) plays online for his father, for Jonah (his son) and for his students – a wise man learns from everything.

The Festival City Symphony is Milwaukee’s oldest professional symphony orchestra. Kartman reminded me that this set is one of Milwaukee’s best kept musical secrets. He hopes that everyone in the Milwaukee area will be able to share with him and the other musicians of the orchestra their performance and participate in the act of passing it on.

Further information, including tickets, can be found on the symphony orchestra’s website:

There is also a presentation video on Stefan’s website:

It will be an exciting concert in a wonderful new location, a way to make a Saturday afternoon extra special. Enjoy.

The Festival City Symphony Orchestra performs at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 9 at the Bradley Symphony Center.

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