Wilmington’s new Humanities and Fine Arts Center, located on the downtown campus of Cape Fear Community College, opened with a glittering gala that included a concert headlined by Liza Minnelli and the North Carolina Symphony and Grant Llewellyn, music director, as well as receptions both before and after the music. The hall of 1,500 was nearly sold out and the black tie event brought many of the arts lovers of Wilmington together for an evening filled with energy and excitement.

The opening of this major new facility is likely to be transformational for downtown and a major addition to the cultural life of the region. Wilmington’s north end has been gradually rehabilitating and the hall should cement this accelerating revitalization. In addition, it is a state-of-the-art facility of substantial size which can attract major artists. When performing in the Cape Fear region, NCS will be using this space going forward. Other prominent performers scheduled to appear this season are John Prine and Lily Tomlin.

This opening event fully confirmed concertgoers’ high hopes. The auditorium is very attractive, open and spacious; sightlines are excellent, and leg room is comfortable. The stage is large enough for an orchestra to perform the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, something that has scarcely been possible in Wilmington until now. Perhaps most exciting, the acoustics are superb. The sound is resonant. The textures of the orchestra come through transparently and well-blended. Even under the balcony, the sound is clear, full, and clean. With one stroke, Wilmington has been placed on the map with a concert hall as good as those in any major city.

The concert gave a culmination to the excitement that had built around this long-awaited opening. Liza Minnelli, literally glittering in her festive outfit, was backed in the first half by the North Carolina Symphony. Before the music began, there were numerous thanks given in an atmosphere of community pride and periodic cheers.

Then came the music. The orchestra gave an introduction of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” after which the dynamic Minnelli fairly pranced onstage to pick up the song. She then sang two more songs, including the famous “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Her pianist was at the Steinway, and for part of the time Minnelli sang with her arm draped around his shoulder – cabaret style.

Following this, the orchestra played a medley of songs associated with Minnelli, then music from Phantom of the Opera. NCS closed the first half with the overture to Bernstein’s Candide. (The printed program for the evening didn’t list anything being performed, so listeners were finding this out as the concert progressed.)

In the segments without the voice, one was able to assess the acoustics most clearly. The Bernstein was treated to a rhythmically dynamic performance which highlighted the bright sound delivered by the hall. In contrast, the string sound was more mellow, particularly in the bass, where a resonant, rich tone perfectly complemented the high brass.

The second half was devoted entirely to Minnelli performing with her band of seven. She sang a total of nine songs in which her iconic tunes “Cabaret” and “New York, New York” made the strongest impression. One other song – “You Are My Sunshine” – was sung engagingly in a jazzy style by a male trio.

Though she can still belt out notes with verve, it is safe to say that Minnelli is past her vocal prime. She tended to sing – as well as speak – largely in short phrases. However, she retains the flair of an irrepressible performing personality. Her stage persona energizes her listeners as she jokes and cavorts. Her dynamic movements suggest at times the dancer that she was earlier in her career. In “Cabaret” and “New York, New York,” so much a part of her singing life for decades, her voice opened out into longer phrases and enhanced vocal projection which made the songs carry well. It was a drawback that her voice and the instruments were greatly overamplified. At the loudest points, it could literally become difficult to enjoy the music. That said, the concluding “New York, New York” was greeted by an enthusiastic response from the large audience galvanized by the excitement of her performance, and the experience of hearing it in this new hall now added to the thriving Wilmington cultural scene.

(Updated 10/6/15.)

Note: A second concert by the NCS – with an entirely different program – will be presented in the same venue on he a date TBA. From the NCS’ website: Sunday, October 4, 2015: For the safety of our patrons and musicians, tonight’s concert by the North Carolina Symphony has been postponed.  Emergency management in New Hanover County is monitoring the weather and has made the request that tonight’s concert not take place.  We will be in touch with all ticket holders within the week regarding a reschedule date and further details regarding their tickets.