Blair music department chair Jennifer Pagotto may be a rarity among conductors: a genuinely nice person, a masterful teacher possessing incredible expertise and a sense of humor about the art of music. She defies, in many ways, the traditional stereotypes of conductors that come to mind: the Chicago Symphony’s legendary Fritz Reiner commanding the stage with dictatorial flair or Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, as famous for his temper and theatrics as for his musicianship.
Yet, it is clear to veteran Blair audiences why Mrs. Pagotto has been called to teaching and conducting. As maestra, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand, keeping time for her musicians and deftly weaving each student’s musical interpretation into the wider composition. As teacher, she leads Blair’s Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Band to push their creative boundaries and take risks. Standing before the assembled musicians with arms raised, she guides her students with surgical precision and creates breathtaking musical moments.
An Avant-Garde Repertoire
On Friday, May 6, attendees of the Spring Concert got a taste of Mrs. Pagotto’s magic when she and the Symphony Orchestra debuted a sampling of classical favorites, as well as a few unconventional choices, including “Sogno di Volare,” the theme to a video game. With a sweeping melody that Mrs. Pagotto described as “artistically stunning,” the orchestral piece was selected by her and Director of Vocal Music Ryan Manni because of its dramatic beauty, created by its rich orchestration and dynamic vocals, and so that students could take part in a growing genre.
“Movie scores started out years ago as pleasant background music, and then, somewhere along the line, composers started writing really beautiful and intricate scores for the cinema,” she explained. “The same thing may be happening now with video games.”
When Mrs. Pagotto and Mr. Manni, who work in tandem to bring the Spring Concert to life, came across Civilization VI’s choir-and-orchestra piece, they agreed that it would be the perfect opportunity to push students’ musical boundaries. “Video game music is growing as a genre, and our musicians haven’t performed a choir-and-orchestra piece since before COVID, so this was both a return to form for our students and a chance to explore new horizons.”
Blair’s jazz musicians, who recently had the opportunity to study under jazz legend Curtis Lundy, have been playing incredibly well this year, noted Mrs. Pagotto, and performed pieces including “All Blues” by Miles Davis, a quintessential “cool jazz” composition, and “Come On, Come Over” by Jaco Pastorius, a jazz-funk song that has become a Blair student favorite this year. “It’s a little closer to Motown and rock and roll,” Mrs. Pagotto said, “and our musicians really latched on to it.”
Blair Academy Singers, led by Mr. Manni, captured the audience’s ear with “Ner Ner” by Jake Runestad, a piece requiring extended vocal technique from Blair’s performers, and their imagination with “Kaval Sviri,” a Bulgarian folk song that introduces students to an Eastern European style that is new to them, among others. In another highlight, senior Sadie Donnelly ’22, made her debut as the Singers’ student conductor with “Over the Rainbow.”
Mrs. Pagotto noted that the concert was the product of many hours of practice from Blair’s students, and she hoped that the audience noticed the level of commitment and skill the performers demonstrated on their pieces. “To see their progress, how our musicians stepped up and played, was amazing,” she said.
Swept Away in Sound
Prior to the concert, first-year student Courtney Payne ’25 said she looked forward to sweeping the audience away in waves of music during the evening, and she hoped that family and friends would appreciate how the performers’ skills have developed since September. A clarinetist in the Symphony Orchestra, Courtney credited Mrs. Pagotto with enabling Blair’s instrumentalists to blossom, and said, “She is just the nicest teacher and is, at the same time, so commanding. In one sweep of her arm, the room grows quiet. She has this way of pulling out the best from each of us.”
When asked what advice she has for members of the community in advance of the concert, Courtney put it simply: “Expect to be amazed!”
Blair’s musicians graced the stage for an evening of spectacular music Friday, May 6, 2022, at 7:00 p.m. in the DuBois Theatre of the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts.
To watch the Spring Concert in its entirety, click play below: