Music Review: Blair String Quartet brings the Christian Teal era to a close with a breathtaking ‘Grosse Fuga’

blairquartetThere are many things you probably don’t know about violinist Christian Teal. For instance, “he’s worked [at the Blair School of Music] for more than 40 years,” said Blair String Quartet violist John Kochanowski on Saturday night at Ingram Hall.

As soon as Kochanowski finished his thought, Teal dropped his score on the stage floor, and the resulting thud drew appreciative laughter from the crowd. Clearly, great musicians, like comics, understand the importance of timing.

One thing we do know about Teal is that he is retiring as the Blair School of Music’s Joseph Joachim Professor of Violin this spring, ending a four-decades-long career in Nashville that was practically pontifical in its influence and duration.

For 42-years, Teal has been the Blair Quartet’s unquestioned leader, and his flexible playing and warm, perfectly centered tone has defined the quartet’s style and sound. Just as importantly, Teal has guided, mentored and instructed two generations of young musicians, many of whom are now among the country’s leading artists and educators.

One of those protégés is the terrific pianist and violinist Melvin Chen. Now deputy dean of Yale University’s music department, Chen studied with Teal during the 1980s. He returned to Blair on Saturday to pay tribute to his former teacher and to perform in Ernest Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1.

Bloch’s 1923 quintet highlighted the Blair players’ affinity for 20th-century music – his work is chock full of quarter tones and string harmonics. It also demonstrated the Blair Quartet’s knack for working collaboratively with guest artists.

Chen and the Blair players gave the Bloch quintet a powerful reading. Their performance of the opening movement, marked “Agitato,” was stormy and menacing. This was busy music that often featured all five musicians banging and sawing away at once, like a group of anxious people trying to shout over one another. The musical effect was delightfully intense.

The second movement was marked “Andante mistico,” though the the ensemble’s playing seemed more sumptuous than mystical to my ear. Chen and the quartet played the finale with unrelenting energy and thrust.

Saturday’s concert was billed as Teal’s last with the quartet at Ingram Hall (he’ll give one final performance with the ensemble on the road this summer), so naturally everyone was expecting a memorable farewell appearance. Certainly, there was no better way to do that than to play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130, which ends with the mighty “Grosse Fuga.”

In this performance, the Blair players – violinists Teal and Cornelia Heard, violist Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang – accomplished the seemingly impossible: They played Beethoven’s autumnal masterpiece with a beautifully paradoxical mix of inevitability and spontaneity.

There was plenty of warm emotion, humor and lyricism in the quartet’s fluid, smartly accented performance of the first five movements. The outsized finale – the famed “Grosse Fuga” – was breathtaking.

The quartet held nothing back, playing this devilishly difficult music with power, precision and fearlessness. One could think of no better way for the Blair Quartet to end an era.

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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.