Major Scale 

Blair School looks to promising future

Blair School looks to promising future

Blair String Quartet

8 p.m. Oct. 15

Steve and Judy Turner Recital Hall, Blair School of Music

For information, call 322-7651

A sense of renewal surrounds the Blair School of Music these days. Most notably, a new cellist has joined the institution’s chamber ensemble, the Blair String Quartet. Filling the chair vacated by Grace Mihi Bahng after 12 years, Felix Wang will join a group that, for the last five years anyway, has arguably been the finest classical ensemble in our city, and among the finest anywhere. And he’ll be playing in a home venue that offers perhaps the widest range of fine music in our city.

Meanwhile, another sign of Blair’s newfound vigor is its growth. The school is just completing an expansion that will double its studio, practice-room, and rehearsal space, and it’s set to break ground for an additional expansion that will include a state-of-the-art, 600-seat performance hall. Dean Mark Wait says he is looking forward to making the hall available, very nearly gratis, to off-campus musical organizations for whom it would be suitable.

All this expansion has already been funded or pledged, another healthy vital sign. Indeed, none of this would be possible without help from generous donors. Two benefactors were honored last month with a splendid concert—and with the renaming of the Blair Recital Hall as the Steve and Judy Turner Recital Hall. That concert, An Evening of Berg and Saint-Saêns, was itself an emblem. Led by conductor Robin Fountain, some 15 musicians performed a Chamber Concerto by Alban Berg, certainly not music for a sing-along. Filled with rhythms and dissonances that still sound alien after 80 years, it was nevertheless lyrical, ironic, and gracefully cosmopolitan.

The second half was a duo-piano version of Saint-Saêns’ witty Carnival of the Animals, performed by pianists Enid Katahn and Amy Dorfman, with narrator Karin Dale Coble reading continuity-doggerel by Ogden Nash. On the face of it incongruous, the program would likely have drawn approving smiles from both of the composers. It certainly drew strong applause from a packed house.

This is not the first time Blair has offered outré programming—and should not be the last. Last year the BSQ played a composition, for string quartet and CD-ROM, by Morton Subotnik. The experience was profoundly moving, both in itself and as a reminder that the limits of music cannot be foreknown. Much experimental art is a kind of terrorist activity aimed at destabilizing the safely familiar. But some of it, by giving us new ears and eyes, renovates and transfigures our sense of ourselves.

This Friday evening, the newly replenished Blair String Quartet gives its first performance in the newly renamed Recital Hall. Maybe because it’s Wang’s first go, we will not hear any experimental music; instead, the program will focus on the early childhood of what we call the string quartet. This kind of quartet was invented by Franz Josef Haydn and Amadeus Mozart at the end of the 18th century. Thus the program offers one of Haydn’s “Russian Quartets” (Opus 33), originally played for a visiting Russian Grand Duke who would later become Czar Paul I. Subtle, ingenious, urbane, and resonant with the genial humor “Papa” Haydn is famous for, the Quartet in G Major (1782) is quintessential Haydn—lucid, robust, and ever so subtly bawdy.

This is to be followed by one of the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn. This Quartet in D Minor, K. 421 (1784), though stimulated by Haydn, is quite self-reliant and more soberly passionate. Its sophisticated artistry has been highly praised by music scholar H.C. Robbins Landon for its “perfect equilibrium” of emotional power and savvy craft. “In these quartets,” Robbins Landon writes, “a balance of personal expressiveness and formal discipline is attained which even Beethoven did not surpass.”

These will be followed by a Franz Schubert quartet nicknamed Death and the Maiden (1824). Schubert, who lived barely 31 years, knew a lot about death: In his family, he was one of only four children out of 12 to live past infancy. He knew a lot of misery before his own death from syphilis in 1828. For most of his life, he saw existence as a battle between longing for eternal rest and strenuous resistance to death’s siren song. That struggle forms the center of this quartet.

Though Schubert is often reasonably claimed as a Romantic, his kinship with Haydn and Mozart is clearly audible in this quartet. For all his lyricism and emotional power, his formal discipline looks backward to Mozart, not forward to Mahler.

This trio of quartets ought to be a very agreeable way for the Blair Quartet to present its new cellist in its newly renamed and expanding home. Local audiences will get the chance to hear how he plays the very sound that the string quartet began with. Bartók’s turn will come in time.

A Russian is coming!

This Sunday, the Nashville Symphony continues its recently initiated series of Horizons concerts. Originally billed as chamber concerts designed to fine-tune sections of the orchestra—especially the newly augmented string section—the concerts seemed an excellent idea. That original announcement was very quickly modified, and the concerts so far have been notably uneven and rarely “chamber” concerts at all. This year they are billed as a “matinee” series, and this first one, featuring pianist and guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, looks uncommonly attractive.

Solzhenitsyn, 27, is the son of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Brought to this country as an infant when his father Alexander went into exile from the USSR, he grew up in Vermont, began studying piano at age 9, and has flowered lately as both pianist and conductor.

He has played Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto with the National Symphony under Rostropovich; he has played Beethoven’s incandescent, challenging Diabelli Variations; he has played Mozart and Mendelssohn; and he has appeared in concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Baltimore Orchestra, l’Orchestre de Paris, and the Israeli Philharmonic, among others. In 1995, he was named associate conductor of the Concerto Soloists Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and in 1998 he was named its principal conductor.

At War Memorial with the Nashville Symphony, he will play and conduct Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor, K. 491, one of the composer’s most forceful and tragic concertos. And he’ll conduct by Schubert what is now called the Rosamunde Overture (though it wan’t written for that long-forgotten play), as well as the Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphony of Beethoven.

War Memorial Auditorium is not an ideal venue, but the acoustics are good. If Ignat Solzhenitsyn lives up to his billing as performer and conductor, listeners ought to hear some sweet vibrations.

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