Belmont University’s McAfee Concert Hall was arguably the best thing to happen to the Nashville Music scene during the 2012-13 season. This magnificent 876-seat hall, located in the sanctuary of the former Belmont Heights Baptist Church, has the same dimensions as the famed Tonhalle in Zurich, Switzerland. No wonder the McAfee has such glorious acoustics.
Saturday night, and the Belmont University School of Music’s various music and theater groups were out in force, filling every cubic inch of air inside the McAfee with resplendent sound. The occasion was Belmont’s 24th Annual President’s Concert, a tradition that has become the capstone of the university’s music season.
Every year, the music school presents its highest honor, the Applause Award, to an organization or person who’s made a singular contribution to the musical life of the university and city. This year’s awardee, appropriately enough, was Carolyn Townsend McAfee, who received the award Saturday from Belmont President Robert Fisher and College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Cynthia Curtis.
“I feel like the award really should go to all of you,” McAfee said of Belmont’s music faculty and students. “I’ve always enjoyed listening to your music.”
The presentation followed an evening that showcased the music school’s remarkable variety. Jazz, rock, country, gospel and classical music were all on the bill. There was even a selection from “Les Misérables,” which was itself a celebration of Belmont being the first university to stage a full-length production of the hit musical.
The program’s first half had a decidedly classical bent. It opened with the University Symphony Orchestra performance of music from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia, Op. 8. Conductor Robert Gregg and the orchestra performed this music – based on traditional Argentine Malambo rhythms – with energy and unadulterated joy.
Choral music figured prominently throughout the concert. Jane Warren led the Women’s Choir in a memorable performance of Randall Thompson’s “Choose Something Like a Star,” a rendition that was remarkable both for its vocal clarity and power. As the Women’s Choir finished singing its final dulcet notes, a luminous sound of almost beatific calm and purity suddenly emanated, without pause, from the back balcony. The redoubtable conductor Jeffery Ames was there with the university’s Chorale, performing the Lux Aurumque from the great contemporary choral composer Eric Whitacre. The transition from the Thompson to the Whitacre was one of the evening’s most arresting moments. Soloist Colby Lapolla and the Chorale performed every note of the Lux Aurumque with unfailing sensitivity and a beautifully blended sound.
The rest of the first half was likewise impressive. Belmont Strings took a page out of the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble’s playbook and performed music from Grieg’s Holberg Suite without a conductor. The group’s reading was bright, tight and stylishly nuanced. Ames led the audience in a resounding sing-along of “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” one of Carolyn McAfee’s favorite hymns, and vocalist Kellen Moss and the University Singers gave a soulful rendition of the spiritual “Ain’t got time to die.” The Chorale, University Singers and University Symphony Orchestra closed the first half with a powerful reading of Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from Mount of Olives.
Variety was the name of the game during the lengthy second half. Conductor Barry Kraus and the Wind Ensemble warmed up the hall with a colorful, technically agile performance of Nancy Galbraith’s Febris Ver (Spring Fever). The composer and conductor Deen Entsminger then led the Chamber Singers and a terrific roster of soloists – Victoria Brinkley, Martin Gay, Zack Taylor and Molly Wineland – in a deeply felt rendition of Hummon/Hannah/Boyd’s “Bless the Broken Road.”
Belmont’s Percussion Ensemble, which performs under the expert direction of conductor and percussionist Christopher Norton, always gives electrifying readings. The group’s performance of David Skidmore’s Ritual Music — which featured a performance of the Belmont University Dance Company – was delightfully aggressive and propulsive. Debbie Belue provided the choreography, which beautifully mirrored the percussion.
Pop music got its due on Saturday night. It seemed only fitting that a school in the City of Music would have such a terrific country ensemble as Southbound. In their performance of “County in My Veins,” soloists Brandon Barnett, Katie Basden, Caroline Batch and Charles Rogers sang with gritty emotion. Members of the pop-rock ensemble Phoenix, for their parts, seemed like good candidates for American Idol with their rollicking rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Make the World Move.”
Company, Belmont’s vocal show ensemble under the direction of Megan Gleckler, presented an unusual hybrid that mixed John Lennon’s “Because” with the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The song – which called to mind the famous Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” – was sung with sweet simplicity and subtle vocal shadings. Other worthy vocal performances came from Jazzmin and soloist Dain Ussery in Charles Gabriel’s “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” Belmont Pops in Sara Bareilles’ “Kaleidoscope Heart” and Session (with guitarist William Benedetto and cellist Melodie Morris) in John Grape’s “Jesus Paid It All.”
The Bluegrass Ensemble gave a riveting rendition of Mark O’Connor’s “A Bow of Bula.” The Jazz Band under the direction of Jeffrey Kirk deserves special mention for the evening’s most swinging, prismatically brilliant (and loud) performance, a virtuoso rendition of “Bugle Call Rag.” Saxophonist Kevin Gatzke, trumpeter Josh Harner, pianist Elliot McClain and drummer Nate Felty all gave thrilling performances.
It was an evening of highlights, yet one performance still stood out. That would be the Musical Theatre and Musical Theatre Orchestra’s rousing performance of “One Day More” from Les Misérables. As one student waved a giant red flag from the choir loft, the vocalists and soloists sang this popular anthem with power and conviction. Jo Lynn Burks led the orchestra with sweep and color.
The concert concluded with the combined choirs and University Symphony Orchestras in “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” This was a huge force, but every constituent part of it could be heard with complete clarity. Indeed, Belmont’s singers and instrumentalists have seldom sounded so good. That was hardly surprising, given that these young artists now have a venue worthy of their gifts.