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Seeking harmony in performance and life: Inside the musical marriage of Leo and Soh-Hyun Park Altino

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In the piece that violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leo Altino will perform in Capitol Theater Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor — each instrument starts off with a cadenza, where the soloists play individually.

Then the violin and cello begin an intense conversation — first together, then with the other musicians in the room.

It seems like a metaphor.

The Altinos, married in 2002, were born on opposite sides of the world. They had successful, growing, separate careers when they met and discovered two common languages between them: English and music.

The couple came to Madison in 2015 when Soh-Hyun Park Altino was hired as assistant professor of violin at UW-Madison. Leo Altino now commutes from their West Side Madison home to Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, near Chicago, to teach three days a week.

They are an easy-going, friendly pair, though talking about their lives together pretty much requires a world atlas.

Park Altino was born and raised in Korea; Altino, in Brazil. Both came to the U.S. to study as teens, though it was years before their paths would cross.

She was in the process of moving from Cleveland, Ohio, to a new job in Memphis, Tennessee, and he was doing a fellowship in Montgomery, Alabama, when both were invited to serve as faculty at a chamber music festival in Bogota, Colombia. Park Altino and her future husband actually met en route to the festival, in New York City. A year later, they wed.

That was about the same time they first performed the Brahms Double Concerto together – in Altino’s home country of Brazil.

“We had to play it right after we got married. I had to practice during my honeymoon,” said Park Altino, laughing.

Now, after 15 years of marriage, countless travels and many performances together, does the concerto they’ll play in Madison Friday feel different?

“I don’t think I can even compare – because we are such different people now,” Altino said.

“Also, we can understand how each other is going to do something, without explaining in words,” Park Altino said. “We don’t use as many words now.”

“It feels like we have changed so much…,” Altino said, as his wife continued the sentence, “that it doesn’t even feel like the same piece.”

‘A very nurturing teacher’

Violinist Eugene Purdue, a longtime faculty member at UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, describes Park Altino as someone “who does everything well.”

“She’s a wonderful violinist, and just a wonderful teacher,” Purdue said. “I would describe her as a very nurturing teacher. She obviously really cares deeply about each student.”

Park Altino does take pride in being a role model for her students, especially female students, as someone who has a professional performing career while also teaching full-time and being a wife and mother.

At UW-Madison, she’s also found a great sense of camaraderie.

“Musical communities can be very competitive,” she said. “Everybody’s trying to get ahead of everybody else, and there’s a lot of proving one’s ability through performing and teaching, through students’ achievement. In many schools I think it can be more common for faculty members to not get along.”

“But here, it’s very unique,” she said. “I can go talk to any of my colleagues, and they are very secure, because they are confident of what they have given. So I feel they can really give the advice I need and the help I need without holding back.”

Likewise, she respects the students in the music school for taking music seriously.

“I like this job because I get to teach somebody for two to four years, every week, and I get to know them really well,” said Park Altino, who has 17 students in her teaching studio.

“Both of us teach one-on-one lessons. (We still stay in touch with) our own teachers, and they are our life-long mentors. To be that to these people — it’s really meaningful. That is my favorite part of this position.”

Honest from the start

Park Altino, 44, moved to the U.S. when she was 16. Her first stop was Baltimore, Maryland, where she studied at the Peabody Institute. She later earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctor of musical arts degrees in violin performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

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“My mother is a pianist, a recently retired piano professor. My father is a tenor” and her siblings are vocalists, she said.

Her maternal grandfather was the famed Korean composer Un-Yung La.

“Even now, if I run into a Korean person here in Madison, they know who he is,” she said.

Altino grew up in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. (“Pernambuco is the name of the wood, incidentally, that most bows are made from,” he pointed out.)

Altino’s father is a violinist and conductor and his mother is a pianist. The affable and enthusiastic Altino made his debut with an orchestra at age 11. “We grew up cooking in music. It was in the air we breathed,” he said.

When he came to the U.S. to study at the New England Conservatory at age 15, “the whole family moved – five other siblings plus my parents.”

He would go on to earn his master’s degree at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, followed by a two-year fellowship with the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra.

Both families came to the couple’s wedding ceremony in Alabama, and despite their different languages and cultural backgrounds, they all shared a common love of music.

Altino said it took him “15 minutes” after meeting his future wife to know that she was “the one.” It took her a little longer to reciprocate — about a month.

Preparing for the chamber music festival where they would both teach in Colombia “was very intense, because we had to collaborate and perform right away,” Park Altino said.

“We had to be honest right away about how we felt about music, and to play together. We have really different personalities — the opposite of each other, in many ways. I think we got to know each other really quickly, and very intensively.”

From cooking to Pilates

Park Altino said one of her new interests is Pilates, which “has really helped in playing the violin more naturally.”

Her husband has a wide range of interests – from cooking to design and photography.

“If I hadn’t known Leo, I probably wouldn’t have known about anything outside of music, whether it’s about health or nutrition or design,” Park Altino said.

“Playing the cello comes so naturally to Leo, and one of the main differences we noticed when we first met was that my approach was very analytical, and Leo’s was very instinctive.”

The Altinos spent well over a decade teaching at the University of Memphis and were happy there. “We had wonderful students and also a community that we were feeling very settled in,” she said. “But when our son was 5, we thought if we were going to explore, that was the time.”

A rare teaching position came open at UW-Madison when tenured professor Felicia Moye left. Park Altino was already aware of the university’s music school and Madison’s reputation as a good place to raise children.

They continue to travel — son David, now 7, goes with them when they spend extended periods away from home working at chamber music festivals — and recently recorded a CD of works for violin and cello titled “En Voyage.”

Surprisingly, there are few works for those two instruments together. It was Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director Andrew Sewell who suggested the Altinos perform the Brahms Double Concerto with the WCO.

Sewell has known the Altinos since meeting them at a music festival in 2000, and describes them as “a fantastic couple and great artists.” Their performance will be part of a “spectacular” WCO program that includes a C.P.E. Bach Symphony and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, he said.

This Brahms piece “is very much like an intense conversation,” Park Altino explained. “An intensive and productive conversation. Because you have to listen really intently, and then you have to respond. It’s not like you have your speech ready and you’re just going to say it. You have to listen and respond.”

Altino likens working as a duo to having two sculptors with one piece of raw marble, chiseling at it from two directions to create a unified work of art.

“I think it is just like anything when you are two people doing anything, anything where you want excellence, whether it’s writing or cooking or playing music,” Park Altino said.

“You’re going to have strong opinions. I think over the past 15 years when we’ve been married and playing together all the time, we’ve had to work a lot. The art of communication has become more efficient.”

“It’s not very common to have this kind of partner to play with,” she said. “You really have to know each other well to say everything you need to say, and feel safe to pursue the ideas – and do it day after day after day. If we play with our colleagues, you might meet for a couple of hours a day for a week, and then perform. But here we are, living with this repertoire we know we’ll be coming back to many times, for decades.”

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