A ‘Flawless Pianist’

Woman returns to UM in her retirement

Story by Lucy Beighle, for Montana 55
Photos by Tyler Wilson, for Montana 55

One of Barbara Blegen’s earliest memories is running around the University Theatre (now known as the Dennison Theatre) at the University of Montana, at the age of 6 or 7. Her mother, Dorothy Anderson Blegen, was a violinist in the Missoula Civic Symphony Orchestra, a precursor to the present day Missoula Symphony Orchestra, and the young Blegen spent many a day with her sister running around the concert hall.

“My family was incredibly musical,” Blegen said. “My mother would host chamber concerts in our living room with other members of the orchestra, some families who are still prominent in the musical community here in Missoula. My father, who was a physician by trade, played the piano in a band called the ‘Toe Teasers,’ which was really a honky-tonk band, and my sister Judith went on to become a prominent opera singer, singing at the Met with the likes of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.”

Blegen, or Barbie as the Missoula musical community addresses her, is no slouch herself. During
an interview, the diminutive pianist proudly showed off folders and cuttings of newspaper articles dating back to the 1950s, announcing upcoming concerts by the young musician. Her first public full-length recital in the Music Recital Hall was in 1955 when she was 11, and she was the featured soloist with the Missoula Civic Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12.

Barbara Blegen at the Music Recital Hall at the University of Montana.

Barbara Blegen at the Music Recital Hall at the University of Montana.

Blegen became attracted to the piano at about the same age most kids become attracted to dolls and monster trucks, and by the age of 4 she could pick out tunes on the piano by ear.

“If my dad played a note on the piano, I could tell him what note it was from the other room,” she said.

That ability led to piano lessons, but by the age of 8, her mother, a string musician, urged her to play the cello. “I told her ‘no way,’ and I’ve never regretted that decision,” Blegen said.

Thankfully for us, she was a stubborn third-grader.

At the age of 15, Blegen and her sister Judith both were offered full ride scholarships at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where they studied until graduation. Thereafter, Missoula had a long hiatus from the talented musician. Blegen moved to Baltimore and then Boston, where she got a contract playing concerts with Columbia Artists.

“I performed 88 concerts in a seven-year period – it was hard work, but incredibly rewarding,” she said.

She also played with the New York Philharmonic and the St. Louis and Baltimore symphonies during this period, and went back to get her MFA at Columbia University where she ended up working, all the while still performing concerts. She retired in 2006. She then returned to her hometown, almost 50 years later.

Since her “retirement,” Barbie has kept up her lifelong pace, and works as a pianist “as needed,” for UM. That means, among other things, she accompanies the Opera Theater and the University Choir, presents master classes, accompanies vocal auditions and music recitals, performs in the School of Music’s Celebrate Piano Series and performs in the Missoula Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Soirée. Piano faculty member Steven Hesla describes Blegen as a “flawless pianist.”

“We joke in the department that we haven’t heard her miss a note in 10 years,” he said. “She’s adored in this community, and people just love what she brings to music.”

Blegen fondly recalls, “when I was living in Missoula from the age of 8 to 15, I spent so much of my time at UM either in my own lessons with the esteemed professor George Hummel, performing in some capacity, or with my mother and the symphony, that I really felt like a part of the university. I feel that again now – I’m lucky to be back.”

And we’re lucky to have her back.

Lucy Guthrie Beighle writes from Missoula, where she owns a public relations consultancy, teaches communications at the University of Montana and enjoys the many cultural and recreational amenities her hometown offers. 

Comments (1)

Add a comment
  1. January 18, 2017
    We love our Barbie - hopefully everyone will come to hear her perform her solo recital at 3PM on January 22 in the very MRH she practically christened when she was an eleven-year-old! Yea, Barbie - you're a musical hero! Reply

Add a comment