British Invasion 

John Rutter ups the ante at Belmont

John Rutter ups the ante at Belmont

For the second straight year, the Belmont University School of Music is bringing a magnum-caliber British musician to campus. Last year, when Kenneth Sillito came to town to lead the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at the Ryman, he spent the next morning at Belmont in a master class for string players. Watching the man work as teacher was as delightful as watching him perform as first violinist/conductor of one of the world’s finest chamber ensembles. In both roles, his confident, witty insightfulness personified professionalism at its best.

This year, his compatriot John Rutter will spend two days at Belmont on Oct. 30 and 31 showcasing his talents as both composer and conductor. Rutter’s primary focus has always been on composing. But he recognized early that music on the page is worthless unless it can be properly heard. Shoddy performance may be worse than no performance at all. And so Rutter, in becoming a master composer, has made himself into a master conductor as well.

During Belmont’s two-day Music Festival, Rutter the conductor will hold choral master classes, ensemble rehearsals, and music reading sessions with some of the school’s choral and instrumental ensembles, featuring compositions and arrangements by Rutter the composer. The festival culminates Friday evening in an all-Rutter Festival Concert, conducted by Rutter himself. The centerpiece of the concert will be his world-famous Requiem, performed by the Belmont Oratorio Chorus with the Belmont University Orchestra. The concert will also include two new works, sung by the Belmont Chorale, as well as selections sung by the Belmont Chamber Singers and by the Nashville Children’s Choir. All these events, including the Festival Concert, are free and open to the public.

Rutter’s mastery under both his hats is well attested. Born in London in 1945, he studied music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he published his first musical compositions and conducted his first recording sessions while an undergraduate. As composer, his output has been large, varied, and distinguished. He has written works for organ, orchestra, and smaller instrumental ensembles. He has written a piano concerto and two children’s operas. He has done “specialist writing” for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and for the King’s Singers. But his principal concentration has been on the tradition of British church music.

Rutter belongs to a distinguished tribe of contemporary British composers that includes Mathias, Howells, Walton, and Stanford—musical conservatives able to revitalize their tradition by incorporating into it nontraditional elements, old and new. Rutter in particular, as composer and arranger, demonstrates a dazzling mastery of idioms, from medieval modes to pentatonic folk tunes to the blues. Professional to his fingertips, he has the craft to do whatever needs doing.

Director of music at Clare College from 1975 to 1979, Rutter left that position to devote more time to composing. But right away he saw the need to conduct as well, so he founded the Cambridge Singers as a professional chamber choir devoted mainly to recording. Cambridge is a good town for such an ensemble—and the Cambridge Singers rapidly earned a reputation for music ranging, in one critic’s phrase, “from flawless to breathtaking.”

Their sound is indeed marvellous, audibly akin to the King’s College Choir. Unlike King’s a mixed-gender chorus, the voices—especially sopranos—sing with almost no vibrato and with razor-sharp precision. Their list of CDs is quite long, embracing the sweep of sacred choral music from the 11th century to the 20th—including Sarum chant, Palestrina, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Bruckner, Byrd, and Barber. As conductor, Rutter can do them all. And as composer and arranger, he can emulate them all.

A few critics charge that he is overly facile, too much a chameleon, too given to lyric loveliness—not gritty and tough enough. But his music is played more and more. His major accomplishment is a set of large-scale choral works—Gloria (1974), Requiem (1985), Magnificat (1990), and Psalmfest (1993)—that have been widely performed in the U.K., the U.S., continental Europe, and in other countries as well. He appears on CDs in the company of hall-of-fame composers—recently with Bach, Bruckner, Dufay, Hindemith, Mendelssohn, and Scheidt.

Rutter is a frequent guest conductor or lecturer in concert halls, churches, university conferences, and music festivals all over the Western world, doing what he is to do at Belmont. On these occasions, he does not conduct the Cambridge Singers. Rather, he tries to nurture musicians who seek to emulate this ensemble.

On Oct. 29, as a kind of hors d’ouevre before the festival itself, Rutter will conduct three of his compositions at a Scaritt-Bennett vesper service featuring Belle Voci—a group of community singers whose voci are indeed belle. In addition to the three compositions conducted by the composer, Belle Voci will sing a program of music arranged by Rutter and directed by Belmont’s Dr. Jerry Warren and Dr. Tim Sharp. Scaritt-Bennett’s Wightman Chapel is a wonderful space to sing in. The evening should be delightful.

If you know Rutter’s music already, you will not want to miss these chances to observe how the master shapes it. And classical music fans who don’t yet know the music have something great to look forward to.

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