TV Review: Denyce Graves headlines this year’s joyous ‘Christmas at Belmont’

Christmas at Belmont-1Few college music programs offer their students the chance to perform on national television. At Belmont University, this opportunity is practically a given.

For the past 11 years, the university’s school of music has presented its Christmas at Belmont holiday show to a national audience on PBS. This year’s glistening Christmas special, taped in November at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, airs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 19 on NPT.

belpop2The entire program is a showcase for the music school’s remarkable versatility. For the better part of an hour, the school’s various specialty ensembles perform in every conceivable style – classical, country, bluegrass, pop-rock and Broadway. Belmont’s singers and musicians perform all of these genres with confidence and panache.

beldenyce1Some of the program’s most memorable moments feature performances by world-renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, the show’s celebrity host. Her rendition of “Ave Maria” with Belmont choristers and the University Symphony Orchestra is surely the highlight of the entire show. The song displays Graves’ immense range, from her chesty low voice to gleaming top notes. Belmont’s orchestra and chorus provide sensitive accompaniment.

Graves turns in two other notable performances. She enters the choir loft to sing “This Little Light of Mine” with the Belmont Chorale under the direction of conductor Jeffery Ames. Singing from on high, Graves and the choristers perform with angelic purity and sincere feeling. At the end of the show, Graves joins the orchestra and combined choirs for a resoundingly joyous rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

beldenycebalThe university’s orchestra and various choirs shine throughout the concert. The show opens with Ames leading the combined choirs and orchestra in a sparkling account of “Sing We Joyous,” a festive medley of familiar carols that are performed with vibrancy and good cheer.

The rhythmic vitality of the orchestra comes to the fore in a performance of Fiesta de Navidad, led by conductor Robert Gregg. The orchestra’s string players, meanwhile, demonstrate their impressive classical chops in a polished rendition of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto.

belpercussionBelmont’s Percussion Ensemble makes a terrific tintinnabulation of sound in Christopher Norton’s arrangement of “PaRumpa Fum Drum.” That performance seemingly left no percussion timbre unexplored. Belmont student Sadie Bo Harris, who’s best known to Nashvillians for her day job as Nashville Ballet’s prima ballerina, gave a graceful, tasteful account of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

belsadieMany of the show’s most entertaining segments come from Belmont’s jazz and pop-music ensembles. The Jazz Band under the direction of Jeffrey Kirk give a swinging rendition of Gordon Goodwin’s “Yo’ Tannenbaum,” an ingenious arrangement that starts off like a brass carol and ends like a big-band romp.

Southbound, the pop-country ensemble, gives an affecting performance of “On This Winter’s Night.” This rendition becomes even more heartwarming when the Women’s Choir adds its resplendent voices to the mix, accompanying from the balcony with the carol “Silent Night.” The pop group Phoenix delivers an elegant, classy account of “White Christmas Fantasy,” and the Bluegrass Ensemble outdoes itself with a lively, folksy account of “Christmas is Near.”

belblueWhat’s the concert’s most entertaining performance? That would be the Musical Theatre’s and University Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration in “We Need a Little Christmas,” a performance that comes complete with energetic tap dancing.  My favorite performance? That would be the University Singers’ sweet, gentle and luminous rendition of “My Lord Has Come.”

Christmas at Belmont airs nationally at 9 p.m. (CST) Friday, Dec. 20 and 7 p.m. (CST) on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24 on PBS. Viewers should tune in, since this broadcast is probably the nicest musical holiday card they’ll get all season.

Here’s a clip of what you’ll see:

PHOTO CREDIT: All photos courtesy of Belmont University

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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.

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