When you ask Stephen Miahky what he likes most about playing with the Blair String Quartet, his answer is the very music the group plays.
“There really is something special about how composers treated the ensemble,” Miahky says. “I think it’s no accident that Beethoven wrote 17 string quartets, and Mozart wrote probably 20 string quartets, and Haydn wrote 68 that are attributed to him, and Shostakovich and Bartók and Dvorák.
“I think it’s clear that the medium itself of the string quartet was a popular genre among composers, so we feel really lucky that we have a variety of music to choose from, and it’s a really rewarding way to spend one’s time to try to find a coherent voice out of the four of us.”
The four of the Blair String Quartet make their way to Lexington on Sunday, from their home base at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, for a concert at First Presbyterian Church, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Central Kentucky. The quartet actually predates Blair’s association with Vanderbilt, forming in the Blair School’s early days as a pre-college program before formally becoming part of the Nashville university in the mid-1980s.
When Miahky came to the school and the quartet, he was making a little history himself, taking over the chair of Christian Teal, who many Nashville publications describe as a local legend having anchored the quartet for 42 years. Miahky already had a distinguished career performing around the world and at events like the Dali Lama’s visit to the United States.
The past couple of years, he has enjoyed settling into his new city, often associated with a different sort of music.
“The Blair School is really the center of the classical music scene in Nashville,” Miahky says. “On our faculty, we have members of the Nashville Symphony, the Nashville Opera. We have studio musicians, we have fiddle teachers, we have banjo teachers and mandolin and dulcimer. I think our school really reflects our culture and the town.
“It’s nice, in our building, to see the breadth of what’s possible in music and what’s possible in Nashville.”
As a university-based ensemble, all four musicians — Miahky, second violinist Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang — are on faculty and have various other roles at the Blair School. They perform several on-campus concerts a year and a number of touring dates, which often take them to other universities around the country.
“One of the wonderful things about going on tour is getting to interact with people you don’t really know, and interact with students and meet like-minded faculty who are also passionate about playing and teaching,” Miahky says.
The Blair Quartet is known for its interpretation of standard repertoire, and Miahky has built a reputation as a champion of new music. Sunday’s audience at First Presbyterian Church will hear both sides of that profile with performances of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet No. 56 and Robert Schumann’s Quartet No. 1, sandwiched around American composer Pierre Jalbert’s 2004 composition Icefield Sonnets.
“These are based on Sonnets by Anthony Hawley, and these are wonderfully descriptive sonnets about winter, so it is really appropriate we are playing them this time of year,” Miahky says of Icefield Sonnets. “The music ranges from very static landscapes, very calming, tranquil to extremely ferocious and representing the turbulence of winter. It really is a wonderful piece that has a lot of interesting colors and textures.”
One of the most enjoyable things about the quartet taking on new music is, “it forces you to think out of the box, and it can push the envelope a little bit to really achieve the sounds the composer had in mind, despite some of the difficulties.”
And the new music affirms that after centuries of works, composers are still excited to write for string quartets.