Writer’s Choice: Madison welcomes Badura-Skoda again and again

March 2, 2011

When pianist Paul Badura-Skoda plays recitals in Madison, they represent more than just world-class performance. As an artist-in-residence during the 1960s, his presence played a part in the renaissance of the School of Music.

“It’s a bright spot in the history of this school,” says Todd Welbourne, professor of piano. “We’ve always had pianists on an international scale — Christopher Taylor, Howard Karp. Paul’s been one of the top pianists of his generation, and we were fortunate to have him.”

After entering the Vienna Conservatory and winning the Austrian Music Competition in the late 1940s, Badura-Skoda gained the recognition of celebrated conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. The concerts he performed under their direction set the stage for a meteoric rise in fame.

Spending the spring semester of 1964 as a Brittingham Professor of Music, Badura-Skoda made a forceful Madison debut with a series of nine recitals. As crowds overflowed the 380 seats of Music Hall, the recitals also aired on WHA-TV.

This exposure opened the eyes of students from other disciplines, piano teachers eager to learn new instruction techniques, and administrators considering plans for the yet-to-be-built Humanities Building.

“There were certainly good pianists — Leo Steffens and so forth — but the School of Music was less developed then,” says Jeannette Ross, who retired as a professor of piano in 1990. “You can’t say it wasn’t good; Gunnar [Johansen] had come and made a big impression.”

In those years, the scattered department had expanded into a series of ramshackle houses, belying the quality of instruction. With the arrival of the first instrument specialists, including Pro Arte cellist Lowell Creitz, horn player John Barrows and instrument bassoonist Richard Lottridge, the school aimed for bigger things.

“When I was considering coming here in 1957, I had a very fine TA who’d heard that the scientists considered the music school so autonomous that the intellectuals laughed at it,” says Ross. “But she said it was getting better and better. People who came here were glad to have the opportunities.”

Named an artist-in-residence, Badura-Skoda and his spouse, Eva, a musicologist, returned to campus in 1966. When a Wisconsin Alumnus writer asked why he would leave Vienna’s rich musical traditions for a country “much more materially oriented than culturally minded,” he had a quick retort.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” said Badura-Skoda. “This country is developing its cultural life very rapidly. Over there, change is regarded with suspicion. Here it is welcome.”

By the time he left in 1970, citing a desire to return to a more regular concert schedule, both he and his wife had contributed greatly to an expanding music department. Eva, who could not find a teaching position in Europe because of her age and gender, taught courses for graduate students and non-majors. Paul’s frequent recitals and master classes attracted students and community members at all levels.

“After he’d left, we moved into the new Humanities Building,” says Ross. “The music school had mostly new pianos — purchased as a result of his influence — for the studios and the practice rooms. It’s the first we’d had of Bösendorfers, and maybe German Steinways, too.”

Much has changed since those days. The Humanities Building is itself now poised for replacement, and gender discrimination makes less of an impact.

The pianos, however, remain. Thousands of students have honed technique on practice-room Bösendorfers, with their extra bass keys and a softer tone suited to Badura-Skoda’s taste. Today, one of his massive concert grands accompanies choral students in Room 1351.

Badura-Skoda still has a presence, too. His many recordings are still in use and his scholarship still rings true. Welbourne notes that he recently shared a Badura-Skoda article on Beethoven with one of his current students.

No wonder Madison welcomes Badura-Skoda back, again and again.

“I remember when he played an all-Schubert recital in 2002, in Mills Hall,” says Rick Mumford, concert manager and director of public relations for the School of Music. “The line stretched out the door. The audience was filled with people who either remembered him from the ’60s and ’70s, or were keen to hear him live for the first time. This concert will be a homecoming, in many ways.”

On Thursday, March 10, Badura-Skoda will perform Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, with the Chamber Orchestra; James Smith conducts.  The program also includes Beethoven’s “Music Zu einen Ritterballett,” WoO1 and Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony,” Op. 83a. The concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. in the Mosse Humanities Building’s Mills Hall; admission is free.

He will also perform a salon concert at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 12, at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road. The program will include works by Bach, Schubert and Mozart, with a second half devoted to the works of Chopin. Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students and seniors. For more information, call 271-2626.