The Blair School of Music this year has shown as much vigor as an 88-year-old man.
And that’s a good thing, because in this case, the octogenarian-plus is string master Robert Mann, who founded the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946 and remained first violinist until “retiring” in 1997.
“Bobby is a joy,” says Dean Mark Wait, marveling at the October visit during which Mann played second viola with the Blair String Quartet and gave master classes.
Mann’s visit set a vigorous tone for the school. “It’s a good year for us,” Wait says. This “good year” also included the visit to Blair by world-class musicians who recreated iconic composer Elliott Carter’s textured, challenging work as part of a worldwide observance of his 100th birthday. And it includes Renée Fleming—“the best soprano in the world,” according to Wait—who is setting aside her usual requirement for 1,000-plus-seating to perform in the 618-seat Ingram Hall. Additionally, the Blair String Quartet presented the local premiere of Triptych, esteemed New York composer Robert Sirota’s rumination on 9/11. The composer, who is president of the Manhattan School of Music, attended the performance, which he regaled as “transcendent” in a congratulatory note to the quartet.
Those may seem highlights enough for one year, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that the generosity of benefactors allowed Blair to push forward by commissioning works by great composers for performance by the faculty of musical virtuosos.
Deserved pride lights Wait’s face as he reviews these accomplishments. “The Blair School is relatively young. We’ve only had a collegiate program since 1986. And the trajectory is definitely upward,” he says. “Just the fact that we can bring in great artists for the students and the faculty is a great pleasure,” he says.
Equally excited by the year—most especially by the Mann visit—are members of the Blair String Quartet.
First violinist Chris Teal, a 35-year member of the BSQ, recalls it as “unforgettable.” Mann “gave a wonderful master class,” he says. “And even though he’s known as a great, great violinist, he also played viola.” In fact, Mann, the Juilliard String Quartet founder—whose biography includes a 1952 visit to Albert Einstein’s house during which the scientist joined in on violin—played the second viola part in the Blair group’s performance of Mozart’s Quintet in C-Major for String Quartet and Viola.
Mann “has been an incredible force in chamber music in America,” says Teal. “He’s a living legend …. His commitment and passion and his vision of the vitality of chamber music has inspired a lot of players.”
One who speaks to that inspiration is BSQ violist John Kochanowski, who has known Mann for 37 years. “I was a student at Juilliard, and he was my teacher,” he says. “I’ve been at Vanderbilt 21 years. Before that I was the violist and founding member of the Concord String Quartet, which Bobby Mann put together. [He] was my mentor.”
Kochanowski says the visit was “one of those great, once-in-a-lifetime things. To have him sit next to me and make music is the great thrill of my life.”
The performance aside, Mann’s visit also was reaffirming to these musicians and students.
“What was so profoundly moving to me: That (master) class he gave so beautifully explained why music is important to everyone,” Kochanowski says. “He showed our students a level of intensity that is hopefully going to run through their lives.”
Voice students will seek similar inspiration in the April appearance by Metropolitan Opera star Fleming, who only agreed to perform in Ingram Hall after hearing raves by fellow soprano Dawn Upshaw, who has sung at Blair twice. The sopranos share the same agent, and word of the gem that is Ingram convinced Fleming to appear at Blair, according to Wait. Both sopranos’ visits were made possible through a fund endowed by the late Mary Ragland, an accomplished soprano who settled in Nashville and became a patron of the arts.
The November “Music for 100 Years—The Elliott Carter Centenary Concert” was another peak. Carter’s 100th birthday was celebrated throughout the classical world, as ensembles explored the works of the composer who consistently challenges textural, tonal boundaries.
“There might be some long, lyrical line contrasted with a skitting, jittery musical figure,” Wait explains. “The interest in his music exists in how these lines of music intersect.”
The visiting artists in Blair’s salute included Tara O’Connor, flute; Charles Neidich, clarinet; Rolf Schulte, violin; Fred Sherry, cello; and Steve Gosling, piano.
“These are some of the best musicians in the world,” says Wait.
O’Connor, New York-based music educator and flute player, notes that “there are only two places you can hear this program with these players: the Blair School and Carnegie Hall.
“It’s quite something the Blair School is on board,” O’Connor says. “[It shows a] commitment to the music of the future.”
“We are not principally a presenting organization,” Wait says, emphasizing how special the opportunities and circumstances were that brought these acclaimed artists to perform at the Blair School. “This year we were especially fortunate to get some of the great artists in the musical world.”
“Every year the Blair School has very good artists come visit: This just happened to be a great year.”
Tim Ghianni, a veteran journalist who lives in Nashville, is serving this year as Journalist-in-Residence for Vanderbilt Student Communications.
© 2017 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Steve Green, John Russell