Blair Musicians Harmonized from Home in Virtual Spring Concert

Blair Musicians Harmonized from Home in Virtual Spring Concert
Joanne Miceli

Blair’s vocal and instrumental musicians took part in a unique musical event on May 15 when they presented the School’s first-ever virtual Spring Concert. The online performance showcased the repertoire students prepared for their Carnegie Hall debut in April, and celebrated their Blair spirit and determination to make music together, despite physical distance, a global pandemic or any other obstacles that might come their way. You can view the full concert by clicking "play" below.

A Repertoire to Remember

Until they departed campus for spring break in early March, Blair’s musical ensembles were focused on their trip to New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall, where instrumentalists were to have performed as part of the Spring Instrumental Music Festival and vocalists as part of the National Youth Choir. The April 18 concert would have been a “historic moment in Blair music history,” according to performing arts department chair and director of instrumental music Jennifer Pagotto, but with COVID-19, it simply was not to be.

Nonetheless, as Blair’s musicians settled into distance learning from their homes in every corner of the world, they continued to polish the significant and challenging repertoire they had begun to work on last fall and winter. Through online group work, one-on-one virtual lessons and coaching sessions with Mrs. Pagotto and director of vocal music Ryan Manni, not to mention plenty of practice on their own, Blair’s instrumentalists and vocalists prepared for a memorable Spring Concert.

“Several Orchestra pieces in our repertoire are significant works from the Western canon, so that alone makes these concert performances stand out,” Mrs. Pagotto said, citing Bach’s Fugue in G Minor as a work that is “incredibly difficult” to play. “Students put so much work last winter into preparing their parts and learning how the parts fit together. They had to learn their own rhythms, but in order for the piece to work, each player had to play exactly in rhythm. The audience will definitely hear the complexity of the music in this piece.”

Mrs. Pagotto also described Modest Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev” as a beautiful orchestral work. “This would have been the opener at Carnegie Hall, and I’m very proud of how the musicians approached their tone production and phrasing in this piece,” she added.

Mr. Manni chose vocal works “Ave Maria,” by Kevin A. Memly, and “I Don’ Feel No Ways Tired,” arranged by Stacey V. Gibbs, as concert highlights. “‘Ave Maria’ includes complex rhythmic patterns that many students struggled to learn at first, but their hard work fostered a new appreciation for this composition,” he said. “The Singers especially loved learning ‘I Don’ Feel No Ways Tired’ for its ending that includes a few large and chromatic chords. They take full advantage of their vocal technique to really sing out.”

Robbie Donnelly ’20 is also a fan of “I Don’ Feel No Ways Tired” because the piece is super energetic and upbeat. “It also has a lot of cool dynamic changes and harmonies,” he noted. “Overall, it’s just a fun song to sing!” 

Tapping into Technology

In addition to its exciting repertoire, the virtual Spring Concert’s presentation format and the way it came together also make it a standout event. Students recorded their parts for each work from their homes, and Mrs. Pagotto and Mr. Manni tapped into technology to create virtual compilations of each ensemble. The audience will hear—and in some cases, with accompanying video, see—the final result during the virtual concert.

“There is nothing ‘normal’ about having each vocalist or instrumentalist perform separately—in fact, it is antithetical to what we strive for as an ensemble,” Mrs. Pagotto reflected. “Usually, we try to function as one performer and to make music and create a piece of art together, in the moment. It is amazing that we can use technology to recreate, as best we can, an ensemble performance. The audience will hear some outstanding music from our students—which represents a huge amount of work on their part—and probably not realize just how difficult it was to pull it off.”

‘Still Together Through Our Music’

These past weeks of distance learning may have presented some challenges for Blair’s musicians, but being apart from one another has inspired an even deeper appreciation for making music together. “We were disappointed not to be able to sing at Carnegie Hall, but that didn’t stop us from finding ways to perform our repertoire for the Blair community,” Mr. Manni said. “Students worked more diligently than ever before, and we have still been together through our music despite the physical distance.”

Nicola Kirkwood ’22 thanked her fellow vocalists for making participation in virtual Singers just as much fun as singing together on campus. “Everyone has been great at keeping together and continuing our choral experience,” she said. “I can’t wait to see everyone next year!”

For Mrs. Pagotto, online classes have been a “refreshing treat,” and she especially recognized the participation of several Orchestra members who have been at home without their musical instruments. “These students have been working behind the scenes to offer suggestions during rehearsals, write program notes and create introductions to each of our concert pieces,” she said. “It has been a joy to see them and all our musicians connect during class sessions, converse with one another and listen to each other’s playing. It’s also been refreshing to see our students’ commitment to continue making music, despite the situation.”

Robbie, too, has been impressed by his fellow musicians’ commitment to a common goal as they have worked on their recordings. “The dedication shown by Mr. Manni and our choir to produce a virtual concert under these circumstances has reminded me why I enjoy participating in choir so much,” he said.

Senior instrumentalists Cameron Grant ’20 and Daniel Heo ’20 are both looking forward to their final performance of the Orchestra’s signature piece, Klaus Badelt’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” during the virtual concert. “I’ve played ‘Pirates’ many times during my Blair career, but this is taking it to a whole new level. It will be like hearing it for the first time,” Cameron said. He added that it has been especially meaningful to come to online music classes and play the instrument he has been playing since fourth grade during this unsettled time. “Mrs. Pagotto always came to class excited and genuinely happy to play for and with us, despite missing out on everything she had planned for the spring. I hope she knows we all really appreciate her.”

Daniel hopes that the Orchestra’s performance of “Pirates of the Caribbean” brings Blair family members from all around the world together as one community. “For me, working with peers and teachers half a world away at a time like this has shown me Blair’s dedication to not only making sure that we get a great education, but also to creating an unforgettable experience by making memories together.”