Music Review: At Ingram Hall, Blair String Quartet debuts a new first violinist

new-blairThe Blair String Quartet changes personnel about as frequently as the Vatican does, so there was considerable interest in the ensemble’s concert Saturday night at Ingram Hall. Stephen Miahky was making his official debut as the group’s new first violinist. Nashville’s die-hard classical fans were in attendance, and they were eager to hear how this new instrumental voice would fit into the familiar sonic mix.

I’m happy to report that Miahky blended beautifully with the quartet’s veteran musicians – violinist Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang. Miahky seemed comfortable and eager to engage the quartet in a musical dialogue. He didn’t play with the warm, centered tone of Christian Teal, who retired from the quartet last spring after an astonishing 42 years on the job. Nevertheless, Miahky brought a welcome degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness to the program.

Saturday’s concert opened with one of the staples of the repertory, Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat, K. 428. This is one of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to his friend and mentor Haydn, and it is remarkable for its conversational quality (all that seamless interweaving of melodic lines) and for the variety of its color and texture. I found much to admire in Blair’s performance. Their playing was luminous, vital and always expressive. True, I wanted a little more immediacy and intimacy in the interpretation. But those are qualities that are often lacking at Ingram Hall, where chamber performances frequently sound like conservations overheard from a distance.

Without question, Miahky brings a generational jolt to the Blair Quartet, something that was keenly felt in the group’s performance of Janacek’s Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata.” Inspired by Tolstoy’s novella, the “Kreutzer Sonata” is a psychological journey, a sonic exploration of rage and remorse. The work’s wild mood swing are expressed in skittish melodies, oversized vibratos, eerie string harmonics and vivacious rhythms. I believe this is a new piece for the Blair Quartet, and on Saturday the music sounded like an old friend. The ensemble gave the Janacek an intense, live-wire performance that probed every conceivable emotion.

The quartet gave a memorable and elegant performance of the final piece, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1. The sort of clarity and ethereal lightness required in Mendelssohn’s music was always present. I was especially taken by the Andante, which the quartet performed with the sweetness and directness of a song. They played the finale with gusto.

It’s going to take time for me to adjust to Teal’s absence. With Miahky in the first chair, this transition will at least be a pleasant one.

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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.