The Catholic University of America

Nov. 17, 2014

Catholic University Senior to Conduct Susannah

  Senior Nathan Blair rehearses with members of Orquestra de Câmara de Cascais e Oeiras in Lisbon, Portugal, last July.

Catholic University senior Nathan Blair and Maestro Murry Sidlin are in front of a black metal music stand on an October morning — the score of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 before them — talking about the second flutist in the third movement.

In a Ward Hall room with a baby grand piano and music posters on the walls, Sidlin, professor of conducting, advises Blair “to invite that musician to play because if you don’t they may wonder: Is this the right moment? Am I too loud? Am I too soft? So invite the second flute to play. It’s the smallest gesture but it tells everyone that this guy really knows the score.”

Blair, who wears gray pin-striped slacks and a light blue sweater draped over his shoulders, is studying the music in preparation for concerts with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. He nods and then student and teacher move on to a discussion of the musical term espressivo — expressively — and the movement of the left hand.

At the end of October, Blair served as assistant conductor to Maestro Yuri Bekker for performances of the Shostakovich symphony and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major.

This week Blair, 21, is preparing to conduct the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music production of the opera Susannah, which opens Thursday, Nov. 20, in Ward Recital Hall. Susannah — American composer Carlisle Floyd’s apocryphal tale of a fair Hebrew wife who is falsely accused of promiscuity by two elders — marks Blair’s third time conducting a music school opera. Last year, he conducted Hansel and Gretel and served as assistant conductor to Maestro Daniele Tirilli for Don Giovanni

Grayson Wagstaff, dean of music, notes that “such an opportunity for an undergraduate might be unique among students in major U.S. music schools."

The Charleston concerts were not Blair’s first professional gig. Last June he served as assistant conductor for the Miami Summer Music Festival, where alongside Maestro Michael Rossi, he conducted the premiere of Suor Angelica at the New World Center.

In July he served as guest conductor of the Orquestra de Câmara de Cascais e Oeiras for the 2014 Portugal Estoril International Festival in Lisbon, where he conducted Mozart’s Piano Concerto K 488 and Haydn’s Concerto for Keyboard in D.

None of this surprises conductor-composer Sidlin, who has been teaching Blair since fall 2013. “Nathan has the proper balance between great confidence and great humility. He is always in service to the music and strives to provide a language of exact gestures that will persuade musicians to go with him inside the score. I am most pleased with his development.”

Blair, who typically practices the piano five to seven hours a day, says, “I admit I am young. But I see these as the learning years and I try to take advantage of every opportunity. I’m honored to be given these opportunities, to learn from my teachers.”

In addition to working under the tutelage of Sidlin, Blair studies with Ivo Kaltchev, professor and head of the music school’s Piano Division. For the production of Susannah, he is working with stage director James Hampton, clinical assistant professor of voice, and Sharon Christman, professor and head of Vocal Division and Opera. After earning his CUA bachelor’s degree, Blair plans to continue his piano and conducting studies in graduate school.

“Nathan is very, very talented,” notes Hampton. “He’s worked very hard on the score of Susannah. I don’t treat him like a student. I relate to him as a peer and a colleague.”

Christman says that in the more than 20 years she’s been affiliated with the University, she can’t recall another undergraduate conducting a major opera production at the music school.

“Nathan is a wonderful musician,” says Christman. “He plays the piano beautifully. He also sings and he understands singers.”

A collaborative piano performance major from Ocoee, Fla., Blair grew up in a family of musicians. He started taking piano lessons at the age of 5 with his mother, a jazz pianist and singer. His father is also a jazz pianist as well as a composer, and his grandfather Sid Blair, now in his 80s, is a well-known saxophonist and award-winning music educator.

When Blair was 5, his grandfather bought him a set of CDs — pieces by the world’s greatest composers. He recalls that the set was produced “by a Canadian label — very good recordings. I just couldn’t stop listening to them.”

He says that by the age of 7, he could be found standing on a chair, waving his arms “like an idiot,” using a pencil or a shish kabob skewer as a baton. Over time he says he became “obsessed with sinking deeper and deeper into the score.”

Blair started composing at the age of 10 with guidance from his father. He won his first National Young Composers Challenge in 2007 at the age of 13 and again in 2008 and 2010. Each win led to a performance and recording of his work by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

With a full course load, the preparation for the Charleston concerts, and constant rehearsals for Susannah, Blair has been busy the last few months. Does he ever feel overwhelmed or anxious?

“Honestly I don’t have time to be nervous,” he says. “I can’t afford to be nervous. When I come to a rehearsal, I come to work. Like everyone else in the orchestra, I am there to serve the music. And I have the added privilege of serving the musicians.”




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