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Music deepens connection for father-son performers

March 8, 2004 By Barbara Wolff

In the film “City Slickers,” the character played by Billy Crystal tries to overcome a monumental midlife crisis at a dude ranch.

The ranch hand, played by Jack Palance, thinks he has the cure for Crystal: “One thing.” Find it and concentrate on it, Palance says, and nothing else will matter.

A simple enough concept to grasp, perhaps, but the very devil for most of us to do.

Not for Uri Vardi, professor of cello in the School of Music. Finding his One Thing was not even remotely a problem.

“I grew up on a kibbutz (communal farm) in Israel,” he says. “When we were about 13 years old, the administrators there decided to let us learn serious instruments. I was drawn to the cello – the teachers said I should have started earlier, that I was too old at 13 to learn the cello. But that’s what I wanted to study. I wouldn’t even consider anything else.”

The cello perfectly expresses Vardi’s emotional response to the music that he interprets on it, everything from 19th century master Johannes Brahms to contemporary Polish/Israeli/American composer Jan Radzynski.

Plenty of both Brahms and Radzynski will be on the program the weekend of March 26 when Vardi performs two concerts of chamber music. Joining him will be his son, Amitai, a renowned clarinetist whose curriculum vitae records appearances with orchestras and ensembles around the world and across the country.

Although the elder and younger Vardi have performed in public concerts together less than a half dozen times, family recitals were a tradition in the Vardi household. The whole family was musical. Mother Hagit played flute. Daughter Shira plays bassoon, and the other daughter, Orit, cello.

Indeed, when Orit celebrated her bat mitzvah (a coming of age celebration for Jewish girls), Radzynski presented the Vardi family with a composition to commemorate the occasion.

“It was very moving gift,” Uri recalls. The upcoming concerts will debut a new Radzynski piece, “Concert Duos for Clarinet and Cello,” also composed expressly for the Vardi family.

Photo of Uri Vardi playing the cello, along with his son, Amitai, on the clarinet.

“This family duet seems intended for music-making in a small circle of family and friends, but the technical demands of the score put it squarely in the concert hall, where it belongs in the hands of skilled musicians,” says Radzynski, who will be on hand for the debut.

For the Vardis, performing music represents a partnership between musician and composer. Each, Uri says, brings crucial and personal elements to the notes on the page.

“It is essential that I as a musician communicate something about myself to the audience,” he says. “I must expose something of myself to the listeners, sometimes about pain, but sometimes about joy.”

Amitai has not been put off by the revelation of private feelings that music often requires. Indeed, he says that playing with his father has deepened their relationship.

“It’s brought us closer in ways that I don’t think anything else could,” he says. However, both father and son concede that serious musicianship levies enormous demands, physical as well as emotional, on the performer.

Since winning the UW–Madison Arts Institute’s Creative Arts Award in 1999, Uri Vardi has been a student of the Feldenkrais Method, which offers performing artists options for changing their performances by making minute alterations in the way they use their bodies.

“For example, if your upper torso follows the bow when you play, the sound comes out one way. On the other hand, if you move your body in opposition to the bow, or lean back from it, the sound comes out very differently,” Uri says.

“I’m always amazed at how such minute changes in movement or carriage make such a profound difference in the way a piece sounds,” Amitai says.

“That’s where interpretation comes in,” his father says. “Feldenkrais gives the performer options – tools with which to express effectively what you’re feeling.”

Uri Vardi has been teaching Feldenkrais to music students for two semesters. He hopes eventually to make the course available to all performing arts students.

The Vardis will perform with musical compatriots Isabella Lippi, violin, and Catherine Kautsky, piano, on Friday, March 26, at 8 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall as part of the School of Music’s Faculty Concert series. Tickets are $9 general/$7 seniors/students. UW–Madison students are admitted free with their university ID. For more information, call (608) 263-9485.

The ensemble also will be featured on Sunday Afternoon Live from the Elvehjem on March 28. Broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio (88.7 FM), the weekly chamber music series begins at 12:30 p.m. at the Elvehjem Museum of Art. For details, call (608) 263-2246.