Belmont University is celebrating more than just the holidays this weekend. On Saturday night, the university presented its annual “Christmas at Belmont” for the first time in its new McAfee Concert Hall. Every note performed inside this acoustically marvelous new venue resonated with the clarity of a sleigh bell.
Saturday’s program served as a showcase of the university’s remarkable musical versatility. Belmont’s various specialty ensembles performed in every conceivable style – classical, country, bluegrass, pop-rock and Broadway. The performers did justice to every genre.
The concert’s first half had a decidedly classical feel. Robert Gregg, conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra, set the tone at the outset with a jubilant rendition of Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival.” This medley of familiar carols – “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells” – was played with color, energy and just the right amount of radiance.
The Nashville Children’s Choir, under the direction of conductor Madeline Bridges, was up next with two delightful choral selections – “O Hear the Joyful Music” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” The first song, performed a cappella, highlighted the purity of this ensemble’s angelic sound. The second tune, which featured the mellifluous accompaniment of flutist Ashley Crawford, received a sweet and searching interpretation.
Conductor Jeffery Ames led the university’s flagship vocal ensemble, the Chorale, in a nimble rendition of Giles Swayne’s Magnificat No. 1. The piece was positively brimming with off-kilter rhythms and intricate polyphony. The Chorale performed it with polished perfection.
Arguably the most unusual work of the first half was Levente Gyöngyösi’s Gloria Kajoniensis. This piece came across as a kind of vigorous Hungarian folk song, one that featured rhythmic handclapping and complex interweaving vocal lines. The Women’s Choir along with violinists Julia Johnson and Cassandra Shudak and percussionists Ashley Zapor and Cassie Swiney performed with joyful energy.
The school’s instrumental virtuosity was spotlighted in two works: Belmont Strings’ performance of music from Locatelli’s Christmas Concerto and the Brass Ensemble’s rendition of the traditional Spanish carol “Riu, Riu, Chiu.” The audience was invited to sing along in two selections – “Joy to the World” and “The First Noel.” A performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres” concluded the program’s first half.
After intermission, Belmont’s various pop music ensembles came to the fore. Christopher Norton led the Percussion Ensemble in a sparkling arrangement of “O Little Town.” Soprano Ariel McFall and tenor Dain Ussery sang with pop sensitivity and expression.
Southbound, the pop-country ensemble, followed with an arrangement of “On This Winter’s Night.” These vocalists – the evening’s only performers decked out in ties and blue jeans – sang every note from the heart. Jazz got its due in two songs – the Jazz Band’s swinging “Yo’ Tannenbaum” and the Jazzmin vocal ensemble’s soulful “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The evening’s biggest ovation went to the Bluegrass Ensemble for its lively, folksy rendition of “Christmas Time Back Home.”
There was plenty of vocal viscosity in the pop group Phoenix’s account of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” – every one of these singers seemed like a plausible contender to be the next American idol. Jane Bryant and the women’s ensemble Session sang Joni Mitchell’s “River” with warmth and immediacy.
What was the program’s most entertaining song? That would have been the theatrical troupe Company’s over-the-top performance of “Twelve Days of Christmas,” a hilarious study in one-upsmanship that segued happily from the familiar carol to “I Have a Little Dreidel” to an implausibly festive arrangement of Toto’s “Africa.” You had to be there.
Belmont’s two Christmas performances are both sold out. Fortunately, Nashville Public Television will air an encore presentation of last season’s concert on Christmas Eve. Anyone who appreciates great Christmas music should spread the good tidings and tune in.