Music Review: Blair School of Music celebrates its 50th anniversary in high style with celebratory concert

blair50The Blair School of Music didn’t waste any time celebrating its 50th anniversary on Sunday at Ingram Hall. Within seconds of the lights dimming, the vibrant sounds of the Blair Brass Quintet filled the hall.

The players – trumpeter Allan Cox, French horn player Leslie Norton, tuba player Gilbert Long, trumpeter Jeffery Bailey, who was sitting in for Pat Kunkee, and trombonist Jeremy Wilson – had snuck into the hall’s top row moments before the concert began. Right on cue, the quintet launched into a vibrant rendition of Jay Dawson’s “The Hit,” a jazzy, aptly named opener.

Two other faculty ensembles – the Blair String Quartet and Blair Woodwind Quintet – also made appearances. The Blair String Quartet – violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang – gave a preview of their upcoming concert, performing music from Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130.

blairquartetThe musicians played the quicksilver notes of the “Presto” with lightness and precision, and they played the “Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo” with immediacy and unfailing sensitivity. This created one of the concert’s first “wow” moments, with the audience sitting in awed silence at the end of the performance.

The Blair Quartet will perform the entire Op. 130, including the Grand Fugue, at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 22 at Ingram Hall. It will be Teal’s last official performance with the quartet, since he will be retiring after 42 years at Blair. So for the school and Nashville, it will certainly be a historic performance.

The Blair Woodwind Quintet – flutist Philip Dikeman, clarinetist Bil Jackson, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, oboist Jared Hauser and French horn player Leslie Norton – were likewise successful in their performance of Endre Szervánszky’s Quintet No. 1 for Winds. This was animated music, and the quintet performed it with polish, spontaneity and joy.

Sunday’s golden anniversary concert might well have been titled “Back to the Future.” Several faculty members – Dean Mark Wait, Flute Professor Emerita Jane Kirchner and Professor David Cassel – reminisced about the school’s illustrious past. But the focus of the concert was squarely fixed on the future, which was represented by the students.

Unlike many major collegiate music programs, Blair got its start as a precollege preparatory academy. It joined Vanderbilt University as a full-fledged undergraduate school in 1981, but it has continued to offer precollege instruction to area youngsters. Many of those young artists were on hand for Sunday’s concert.

calhounSean William Calhoun, a college senior who also attended the precollege, led a quartet of fellow Blair students in a performance of his Divertimento for violin, clarinet, cello and piano. Modern to a fault, the Divertimento was filled with angular melodies and complex rhythms. The quartet – pianist Calhoun, violinist Nathan Lowry, clarinetist Collin Lewis and cellist Wesley Skinner – played this difficult music with precision and energy.

John Johns, Blair’s longtime guitar professor, appeared Sunday with one of his students, Nolan Harvel, in a performance of Ferdinando Carulli’s Rondo in G major, Op. 34, No. 2. An exact contemporary of Beethoven, the Italian-born Carulli wrote more than 400 classical guitar works. Not surprisingly, his Rondo was full of beautiful, idiomatic passages for guitar, and Johns and his protégé played every note with elegance and refinement.

After taking his bow, Harvel joined his fellow choristers in the Blair Children’s Chorus to perform music from John Rutter’s Mass of the Children. Tucker Biddlecombe, director of choral activities at Blair, led the Children’s Chorus and the Vanderbilt Symphonic Choir and Orchestra in the performance. The combined forces, including both precollege and college singers, served as a visual symbol of Blair’s holistic mission of teaching students of all ages.

blair-childrenSoloists Jordan Amann, soprano, and Joe Ciulla, baritone, both performed with sensitivity (Ciulla did an especially fine job of singing in what had to be an uncomfortably high range for a baritone). The Symphonic Choir, for its part, sang with expression and a beautifully blended sound. The Children’s Chorus, under the expert direction of Mary Biddlecombe, acquitted itself with distinction, performing with its usual transparency and purity of tone.

The Blair School of Music has had great run over the past 50 years. Sunday’s student performances strongly suggest that the best is yet to come.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the trumpeter in the Blair Brass Quintet performance.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.