Aaron Gochberg is getting ready for his big senior recital at UW-Madison on April 8, where he’ll perform on the vast world of instruments that a contemporary percussionist has to master.

But first, he’s performing in one of the Mead Witter School of Music‘s most prestigious concerts: The Symphony Showcase, taking place March 18.

The annual Symphony Showcase features top UW music students performing as featured soloists with the UW Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Chad Hutchinson. Gochberg, who grew up in Oregon, expects his family and friends will be among the audience members that evening in Mills Hall.

“I’m definitely a little nervous, because I’ve never performed as a soloist with an orchestra,” said Gochberg, who’ll perform “Prism Rhapsody” by Japanese composer Keiko Abe. The piece is performed on a marimba with a five-octave range, sometimes with six mallets at a time.

“It’s got a lot of contrasts. It’s got some really intimate moments; the opening is improvised,” Gochberg said. “And then the whole second half is really flashy, with fast runs up and down. So it’s an exciting piece.”

The Symphony Showcase is a modestly priced ($10; free for students) opportunity to sample some of the university’s top student talent. Other winners of this year’s Concerto Competition – whose auditions are open to UW student instrumentalists, vocalists and composers — to perform March 18 include:

  • Violinist Kaleigh Acord, who is pursuing a doctorate of musical arts. Originally from Fairfax Station, Virginia, and recipient of UW’s Paul Collins Fellowship, she’ll perform Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major.
  • Iowa City native Eleni Katz on bassoon. An undergraduate receiving her bachelor’s of music this spring, she will perform Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B flat major.
  • Pianist-composer Eric Tran, who is originally from Piedmont, California, and is pursing a doctorate of musical arts in piano with UW-Madison professor Christopher Taylor. Tran will perform Bach’s Concerto No. 4 in A Major.
  • Menmeng Wang, originally from China, who is a doctoral student studying composition and electro-acoustic music. The UW Symphony Orchestra will perform her piece “Blooming,” inspired by the language of flowers.

Gochberg’s choice of “Prism Rhapsody” is a “terrific” one, “in that it showcases his strong technical foundation coupled with his mature musical voice,” percussion professor Anthony Di Sanza noted in an email.

“He is able to make the dense material sail over the top of the music in a graceful and lyrical musical line,” Di Sanza said. “Aaron’s musical confidence and grace shine through in his performance of the Abe. I think this is why he won and why he stands out in the school of music.”

Gochberg, now 21, got his start playing drums as a boy. His dad, the late David Gochberg, had studied percussion at UW-Madison and was a professional musician until going into the computer field.

“So I grew up with drums in the house. But I didn’t start taking drum set lessons ‘til the fifth grade,” Gochberg said.

In high school, he played in the Oregon High School marching band and spent summers with the drumline then known as the Shadow Armada.

There was no “turning point” when he decided to make music his life, Gochberg said.

“I found myself spending my time playing music, and realizing that’s what I’m choosing to do.”

In the percussion studio in the UW Humanities Building, Gochberg and other percussion students experiment with instruments from around the world – not only timpani and snare drums, but tin cans, sirens, shakers and large sea shells used to make music. The students play in a wide range of ensembles, including many that delve into percussion traditions from around the world.

Along with performing at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2015 with other UW musicians, Gochberg twice traveled to Cuba last year to study with musicians there.

He’s particularly attracted to Cuban music because “It’s a music that seems to bring people a lot of joy,” he said. “That’s something that you may not always find in a concert hall. I think that’s what drew me to it – and also just the rhythms and the songs (make up) a really deep and complex repertoire.”

After graduating this spring, Gochberg (whose sister Ariel is a visual artist also studying at UW-Madison) plans to spend a year teaching, performing and applying to graduate schools. Eventually, he might try to teach at the university level, he said.

Until then, he’ll continue study the eclectic range of instruments that make up a percussionist’s art.

“We do play a lot of things from different places,” he said.

“There’s so much percussion, anywhere you go.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.