Lots of good music gets made in Music City, and some of the best gets made by amateurs. Come to think of it, that shouldn’t be surprising. “Amateur” literally means one who does it for love. Real musicians, it seems to me, are always amateurs. They make music whether anybody else listens or not. And true amateurs, even those who never perform outside the shower, are eager to hear others perform. That’s what makes possible the paid amateurs we call professionals.
A good number of amateurs came out last Sunday to hear two recently formed non-pro groups, one calling itself Belle Voci, the other the Scarritt-Bennett Singers. Belle Voci is a choral ensemble under the direction of Dr. Jerry Warren of Belmont University, who with colleague Tim Sharp founded the group about a year ago. Not surprisingly, some of the voices belong to Belmont faculty or alumsbut by no means all. Some are paid singers in church or synagogue choirs. Some work regularly as professionals in studio sessions. And some are able amateurs in the strictest sense. But as Belle Voci they are expected to sing a wide range of music reaching from the Middle Ages to the avant garde, and to do it because they love it.
Belle Voci premiered last November in Wightman Chapel, performing A Concert of Glorias as part of the Scarritt-Bennett Vesper Series. A marvelous idea, the program was made up of settings of the second part of the Roman Catholic Mass, which begins Gloria in excelsis deo. The same text, or some part of it, was sung in settings reaching from the Middle Ages through Palestrina, Vivaldi, and Beethoven to Benjamin Britten and John Ruttera sampling of works and composers that wonderfully symbolized the themes of continuity and renewal running through the tradition of Western Christendom. Trustworthy witnesses called the debut a delight.
Last Sunday, in their second outing, Belle Voci sang a program of mostly 19th-century music in a space emblematizing another kind of continuity and renewal. In the East End United Methodist Church sanctuary, a nearly cubical chamber not far from where the new stadium is rising, these voices sang a very ambitious program, nearly all of it a cappella, including Brahms, Bruckner, Grieg, and three Russians, as well as Vaughan Williams and Gabriel Fauré. The house holds about 500, and it was at least two-thirds fullat 2:30 on a seductively fine afternoon.
The listening amateurs were not disappointed by the singing ones. The voci were indeed mostly bellethough the hall sounded better before it was furnished with wall-to-wall carpeting and padded pew cushions. These acoustical blotters, plus the human bodies in the room, caused problems of balance for which the ensemble couldn’t quite compensate. The basses sometimes could not be heard, and the sopranos sometimes oversang, making climaxes a little strident.
Even so, some of the world’s best music was very ably sung. Except for four demanding Grieg psalms, the Voci stayed in tuneno mean feat in that space. They sang mostly in English, but also in Latin and very impressively in French, their diction always crisp and clean. They were most consistently lovely singing three settings by Samuel Wesley, and several times quite thrilling singing Chesnokov and Grechaninov. I surmise that in a better hall they would have shown to much better advantage.
Later that afternoon, the Scarritt-Bennett Singers performed superbly, under the direction of Angela Tipps, in Wightman Chapel, a wonderful place for making music. Offering no carpet and no seat cushions, Wightman is less comfortable than even the Ryman (which has better pews), but like that venerated hall, it cherishes even whispered sound. Disciplined musicians take advantage of a gift like that, and the Scarritt-Bennett Singers are disciplined musicians.
A little more than a year old, the group is the choir-in-residence for the Scarritt-Bennett Center, a United Methodist conference and retreat venue. The singers perform for various functions there, as well as in other venues around the region. They’ll perform 11 a.m. this Thursday in War Memorial Auditorium as part of the annual convention of the Music Teachers National Association. If Sunday’s performance is an index, the Scarritt-Bennett Singers will serve up sophisticated delight.
To be a Scarritt-Bennett Singer, you have to audition, and you have to be able to sing. Your reward is that you get to sing a wide range of music with other people who can also sing. On Sunday, the selections ranged from very demanding sacred worksone of them vitally laced with witthrough subtly bawdy 16th- and 17th-century songs to 20th-century songs that included Debussy’s setting of three Old French lyrics, a medley of spirituals, and a version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”
The entire program was done a cappella, and at an amazingly high level of excellence. People who know these singers in other connections expect them to do well. But it would be hard to find a group that could have outdone them on this occasion. The rapport between singers and director was close, and the musicianship was first-class. They were openly enjoying themselves, and so was the audience.
Although the program was a succession of delights, I had a few very minor complaints. While I was greatly impressed with the singing of “Night and Day,” its complex jazzy harmonies micrometrically accurate, some aspects of the arrangement diluted my delightit seemed as though arranger Andrew Carter was strutting his own stuff. I enjoyed most, maybe for personal reasons, the spirituals arranged by Joseph Jennings.
Both groups on Sunday demonstrated something very important: People who play music for love sometimes do it better than people who do it for pay. (It is possible, of course, to do it for both.) Doing it for pay may become a subversive trap. Like the politician who panders to his constituents because he serves at their pleasure, the musician-gone-pro may pander to consumers wielding their credit cards. Real musicians make fine music because they themselves love it; other people may listen if they want to. For about an hour on Sunday afternoon, what could be heard in Wightman Chapel was about as fine as it getsand people did listen.
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