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Belmont inaugurates McAfee Concert Hall with gala concert

mcafeeWhen architects with Earl Swensson Associates began renovating the old Belmont Heights Baptist Church a few years ago, they made a remarkable discovery. The dimensions of the church’s sanctuary were identical to those of the famed Tonhalle in Zurich, Switzerland.

It’s no surprise, then, that Belmont University’s new McAfee Concert Hall, located in the church’s former sanctuary, has marvelous acoustics. Belmont spent about two years and roughly $7 million renovating the old church to turn it into a concert hall. On Saturday night, many of Belmont’s collegiate ensembles were on hand to inaugurate the new hall with a gala concert. It’s probably safe to say that the university’s classical music and theater groups have never sounded so good.

The performance opened with a piece intended to fill every molecule of space in the new hall with reverberant sound – Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres” from Hodie. Conductor Jeffery Ames led the University Symphony Orchestra and an oversized Gala Celebration Chorus in a rendition that was richly resonant and powerful. Thanks to the McAfee Concert Hall’s acoustics, the sound was also beautifully blended an alive.

Mark Volker, a Belmont professor and composer, wrote To the Trumpeting Place specifically for Saturday’s gala concert. The title refers to an inscription found on a stone in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Volker arranged his appealing and animated fanfare for brass quintet, organ and percussion, and on Saturday the brass players were located on a side balcony while the percussionists were onstage. One might have expected a stereophonic effect, with the brass emanating from one side of the hall and the percussion from the other. The sound, however, was blended, immediate and seemingly everywhere at once in the intimate 857-seat hall.

One of the singular features of the new concert hall is its magnificent 55-rank Aeolian Skinner organ. That instrument got quite a workout on Saturday, with organist Andrew Risinger performing one of the great showpieces of the repertoire, the Toccata from Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony for Organ No. 5. Risinger’s virtuosic performance revealed an instrument that is positively orchestral in its tonal color.

All of the university’s major ensembles got a chance to shine in the limelight. The University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Gregg gave a bright, tight performance of the Overture to Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla; Belmont Strings gave a deeply felt rendition of the familiar Albinoni Adagio in G minor; the Wind Ensemble gave the finale of Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 a brisk reading; the University Chorale presented a luminous account of Paul Mealor’s Locus iste; and the theater students sang “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Miserables from the heart.

It’s no secret that ensembles that routinely play in a great concert hall improve dramatically in quality over time – just think of the strides the Nashville Symphony has made inside the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Belmont’s student and faculty groups will no doubt experience similar progress in the coming years. Finally, they have a performance space that is worthy of their talents.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.