Concertmaster & Friends featuring Karen Kartal, violin & Jeff Midkiff, mandolin

Chamber Concert
Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church

Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Karen Kartal gathers with friends in this gypsy-themed concert featuring music by Haydn and Brahms, and culminating in a grand collaboration with special guest Jeff Midkiff performing his Quintet No. 2 for Mandolin and Strings (“Gypsy”).

Karen Kartal has been concertmaster of the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra since 2004. In addition to full time positions with the Shreveport and Knoxville Symphonies, she has also held the position of concertmaster of the Baton Rouge Opera and the Lake Charles Symphony, principal second with the Baton Rouge Symphony, and assistant concertmaster of the Louisiana Symphonietta, Marshall Symphony, Longview Opera, South Arkansas Symphony, and the Classical Symphony in Chicago.

 Kartal began her violin studies at the age of 9.  She attended Illinois State University, Western Illinois University, and Louisiana State University, winning first prize in the concerto competitions at each school.  She has since been featured as soloist with several orchestras including the Lake Charles and South Arkansas symphonies. 

Kartal is currently on the faculty at Pellissippi State College, and before moving to Tennessee, taught at McNeese State University.  Karen maintains a large private studio, and her students frequently hold principal positions and are featured soloists in the local youth orchestras.  When she’s not playing or teaching, Karen enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with her family and friends. 

Jeff Midkiff

You’ve heard the old joke.

Seeking directions, a guy asks a musician, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice.”

If he’d asked Jeff Midkiff, the answer would have been, “Practice -- the mandolin.” I guess some might consider that a joke within a joke.

Not Midkiff, or anyone aware of this musical polymath’s talents and uniquely illustrious career. While there are plenty of musicians who play more than one instrument professionally, they are of the same family, like various string instruments (guitar + mandolin), or woodwinds (saxophone + clarinet) or brass (trumpet + flugelhorn).

Not Jeff. He’s also a clarinetist, and between reed and strings, he has performed with opera companies and symphony orchestras. And that is symphony orchestras, plural: Milwaukee, Knoxville, Shreveport, Champaign-Urbana, Jacksonville, Williamsburg, Northwest Florida, Southeast Texas, Ohio Northern, and Cal Poly Symphony Orchestras, the Rochester and Boulder Philharmonics, and the Yale Concert Band. All have had the honor of featuring Midkiff. And speaking of Yale, they gave him their Distinguished Music Educator award in 2017. It was for his work as a music educator and Orchestra Director for the Roanoke City Schools – Midkiff holds a bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Masters in clarinet performance.

The mandolin is how Jeff got to the stage of Carnegie Hall. The Kennedy Center too. And not just as a picker, but as a composer. Mandolin concertos -- one a double concerto for mandolin and violin -- and chamber music have come from his fertile musical mind.

So Midkiff’s not your typical mandolinst. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t also graced the stages of equally distinguished bluegrass festivals, including Grey Fox, Bean Blossom and Strawberry (sort of the Salzburg Festivals of the bluegrass world), beginning his career as the inaugural eight-stringer in the 1980s with the renowned Lonesome River Band, filling that role on their first two albums, as well as the New Grass Revue, McPeak Brothers, Bluegrass Express, and The Schankman Twins.

Things like that can happen when you grow up in Bluegrass country (Roanoke), pick up an instrument when you’re seven, and never put it down.

His profile rose higher in 2003 with the release of Partners in Time, praised by Bluegrass Now staff writer Joe Ross as a “splendid solo debut” by a “superior instrumentalist who pushes the envelope.”

Yet how many musicians get a review like that from a bluegrass authority, and then receive praise from the classical world’s top scribes, such as the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, and the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott, both of whom have written glowingly of Midkiff? Actually, his 2011 Mandolin Concerto, titled From the Blue Ridge, the 2014 Double Concerto for Mandolin, Violin and Orchestra, and two quintets, the first a reworking of From the Blue Ridge, and the second, from 2017, subtitled “Gypsy,” receive enthusiastic praise wherever they’re performed. Midkiff’s muse is melodic, accessible, and both crowd-pleasing and unpretentiously sophisticated. As composers go, he’s the real deal.

Midkiff is also fortunate to have found an ideal group to bring his quintets from the page to the ear. The Carpe Diem String Quartet, hailing from Columbus, Ohio, revels in modern composers like Osvaldo Golijov and Gunther Schuller along with the usual giants – Mozart, Beethoven – and includes Yo-Yo Ma and Richard Stoltzman as collaborators.

Hey, another virtuoso string player, and another virtuoso clarinetist. Coincidence? Not likely.

With Midkiff, it’s just two sides of one musical gold coin.

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