At 7 p.m. on Saturday, I dragged myself into the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall from the pouring rain and was met with an incredible warmth of spirit. Professors, students, alumni, and patrons all embraced one another — a cheerful “Another year!” often served the role usually reserved for “How are you?” or “Good to see you!” Saturday night was the first concert of Blair’s 50th anniversary season, and the Ars Nova String Quartet and Nashville Sinfonietta marked a thrilling start to the year.
The Ars Nova String Quartet, comprised of violinists Benjamin Hart and Caroline Maichel, violist Christopher Lowry and cellist Emily Nelson, are all Blair alumni. They shared the evening with Nashville Sinfonietta’s amalgam of current students, Nashville Symphony orchestra players, and more alumni, creating an atmosphere not unlike our own personal homecoming weekend. The Sinfonietta was conducted by Blair class of 2010’s own Dean Whiteside and joined by professor of piano Craig Nies, confirming that the evening was a celebration of the Blair School of Music. In addition to being the opening performance of the year, the night was also a fundraiser for the Shade Tree Clinic — a primary care medical home for the underprivileged and underserved in East Nashville. Many concertgoers gave generously to the cause as they left Ingram.
Ars Nova began with the first movement of Antonin Dvořák’s Quartet No. 12 in F Major “American.” The piece was an excellent opener, showcasing the quartet’s impressively tight ensemble playing and gorgeous tone. Their second and final piece was Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D Major. It weaved elegantly through a range of emotions and colors, each brought out with admirable skill and sensitivity by Ars Nova. Unfortunately, their sound seemed to be overmatched at times in cavernous Ingram Hall. The tone was intermittently unfocused and the players’ attacks occasionally lost their clarity. A few quibbles aside, Ars Nova’s impressive balance and group musicality more than smoothed over their rougher edges.
The Nashville Sinfonietta announced themselves with authority and aplomb in Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture. Under the baton of Dean Whiteside, the Sinfonietta (39 musicians strong) played its entire program with the precision and agility of an ensemble one tenth its size. This cohesiveness was particularly apparent in the overture’s halting, aggressive staccato passages.
If there was a misstep in the evening, it was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. Though the piece was originally written for two violas, two violas da gamba, cello, harpsichord, and double bass, Nashville Sinfonietta opted to trade the violas da gamba for cellos. The additional sonic weight was simply too much for the piece. The dark, muddy accompaniment obscured the close canon between the violas, leaving the two concertists often sounding out of phase with one another. A piece like Brandenburg 6 requires a clarity that violists Kathryn Plummer and Christopher Lowry, cellists Felix Wang, Emily Nelson, and Ann Yeh, double bassist Michael Rinne, and harpsichordist Dean Whiteside could not provide.
The night ended with a fitting peak as pianist Craig Nies joined the Sinfonietta’s full ensemble for Beethoven’s majestic Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major. While the Sinfonietta performed the work with a nobility and power worthy of its nickname (“Emperor”), the star was unquestionably Nies. His first entrance poured out of the orchestra’s initial chord like a wave rolling from the ocean, and he commanded the stage for the entirety of the piece. Nies played with such fluidity and ease, I was at times convinced that anyone in the audience could have walked up on stage and taken over for him at the piano. There is something special about a performer who can be so impressive and expressive while making his job look that easy.
Whiteside should be commended for preparing his forces so effectively. The orchestra knew exactly when to back away and let Nies shine, but burst to life when it was time for them to take the spotlight back. It was a masterful performance demonstrating how brilliantly Beethoven constructed the work. Perhaps the most exciting moments of the evening came in the gorgeous middle movement. The players were often so quiet and their entrances so imperceptible, it seemed as if their undulating accompaniment emanated directly from the piano as Nies played. After a rousing third movement, Nies and the Nashville Sinfonietta were met with an immediate and well deserved ovation.
Blair School of Music turns 50 this year. If Saturday’s performance by the Ars Nova String Quartet and Nashville Sinfonietta is any indication, 50 never sounded so good.