It’s no secret that Hillsdale College knows how to put on a show. Every year, an impressive assortment of musicians trek to campus, braving the backwater to wow the college and community with eye-popping showmanship and technical skill.
But while Hillsdale’s flashiest musical moments may belong to the Aaron Carters and Broadway’s Next Hit Musicals of the world, some of the most transcendent performances have been homebrewed affairs courtesy of the college’s own faculty.
And few have contributed more of these transcendent performances than has Hillsdale’s resident crack pianist, Director of Keyboard Studies Brad Blackham.This Sunday, Blackham will join forces with other music faculty and a pair of guest artists in a chamber recital in Markel Auditorium. Adjunct Instructor of Music Jonathan Chesson will kick off the performance with Frédéric Chopin’s alternately tranquil and exuberant “Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, op. 22.” A string quintet, featuring Blackham and Director of String Studies Melissa Knecht, will then tackle Franz Schubert’s “Trout Quintet,” which Schubert based on his earlier song “The Trout.”
“I like to think of it as the further adventures of the fish,” Blackham said.
Like his music department cohorts, Blackham wears many hats, with plenty of experience bouncing between the studio and the stage. And according to his students, he excels equally in both.
“We sort of joke that lessons with Blackham are super depressing, because he’s so incredible,” Addison Stumpf ’15 said. “But actually they’re not, because it’s not just this vast jump of discontinuity. Rather than it being a cliff of experience difference, he makes it a staircase — a very, very long staircase, but one that is theoretically climbable.”
In the studio, Blackham is known for three things: his laid-back personality, technical insight and skill, and the staggering breadth of his repertoire. His students laugh ruefully about laboring over difficult passages for hours in practice, only to have their professor sit down and, seemingly without effort, bring their piece to life.
“He’s a far, far better pianist than I will ever be, certainly,” Stumpf said. “Better than most of the people at this school will ever be. But he’s able to communicate in a way that still comes across: even if you’re like, ‘I can’t play that piece as flawlessly as you just did,’ you’re still getting something from the example he’s giving.”
“My freshman year, the one thing that really stuck with me in Western Heritage was learning about ‘sprezzatura,’ the Italian word for making everything look effortless,” Pat D’Amato ’14 said. “That’s the word I’d use to sum up the way that he performs — just the way his hands glide over the keys, all the difficult repertoire. You watch his fingers, how insanely fast they navigate the piano, but then you look at his expression and it looks like he’s not working hard at all. He makes complicated things sound really effortless and gorgeous.”
Over his 11-year teaching tenure at Hillsdale, Blackham has brought that sprezzatura to performance after performance — by himself, in collaboration with other faculty (including his wife, Lecturer in Music Kristen Matson), and even with the college choirs and orchestra.
“His last faculty recital he did the whole first book of Debussy’s preludes,” Stumpf said. “It was absolutely astounding. There’s such a breadth of expression there, but he made them all come across and just gave them all their individual characters. And the year before that he played ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the orchestra. He just threw himself into the piece.”
It’s all in a day’s work for a man who has spent his entire life courting his instrument. After he began picking tunes out on the piano at age 4, Blackham’s adoptive parents enrolled him in private lessons. As he got older, he didn’t follow popular contemporary artists. Instead, he spent his time listening to the premier concert pianists of his day.
“At that time, Arthur Rubinstein was one of my favorites, and Vladimir Horowitz,” Blackham said. “Those guys probably would have been the two biggest names that I latched onto. Probably I was like 8, 9, 10 years old, somewhere around there.”
After getting a piano performance degree at Kent State University, Blackham entered a master’s program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he would meet his future wife. He found various kinds of professional work, playing with the Cleveland Orchestra and once even touring Europe with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Within a few years, however, he found himself tiring of freelance piano work.
“I was just running all over the city doing staff accompanying jobs, playing at the colleges down there,” Blackham said. “And I just got kind of sick of that whole lifestyle of being a gigging pianist like that. It wasn’t like I was making tons of money, you know.”
He thus decided to enter a Doctor of Musical Arts program at Ohio State University, where he was awarded an assistantship to teach class piano. But just as he was about to wrap up his DMA, his life took an unexpected turn.
“This job opened up here, so just for the heck of it, I decided to throw my name in for the job here,” Blackham said. “I just figured, what the heck, why not, I’m almost done, let’s see if I can get a job.”
When he visited Hillsdale, Blackham’s experience and talent stood out to Music Department Chair James Holleman.
“When he visited campus for an interview he collaborated with some of our performance faculty and we were very impressed with his reading, collaborating, and performance skills, and how he interacted with the other faculty,” Holleman said in an email.
So in the fall of 2005, the lifelong Ohioan transplanted himself to Hillsdale, Michigan, and assumed the role he still holds today: helping students follow in his footsteps on a daily basis, and, occasionally, donning stage togs to remind them what they’re striving to achieve.
“We’re spoiled here, as faculty, because the students are all great,” Blackham said. “It’s just a real pleasure coming into this building every day knowing I’ve got all these great students to work with.”