Handbell concert transports listeners through time, around the world

By Brenda Sullivan - ReminderNews
Manchester - posted Mon., Dec. 23, 2013
Hockanum Valley Ringers handbell choir members Megan Ferrari of Simsbury and Mary Jean Pelham of Ellington performing at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester. Photos by Brenda Sullivan.
Hockanum Valley Ringers handbell choir members Megan Ferrari of Simsbury and Mary Jean Pelham of Ellington performing at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester. Photos by Brenda Sullivan.

The Hockanum Valley Ringers rang in the spirit of the season with music reaching back through time and around the world at a Dec. 21 concert held at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester.

The 13-member bell choir – who range in age from 18 to 80 – performed a dozen Christmastime compositions, including a familiar tune used in TV ads that’s actually a traditional New Year song in its country of origin, "Ukrainian Bell Carol Fantasy"; a flamenco-inspired piece from Spain, "Fum, Fum, Fum," with mallets clicked together to create the sound of clapping or castanets; a German lullaby, "Still, Still, Still"; and well-loved American favorites.

The audience of about 100 also was invited to sing along to "Silver Bells" and Irving Berlin’s "White Christmas," which opened with a beautiful cascade of bells.

Members of the choir will modestly tell you that anyone can learn to play these bells – "If you can count, you can play bells," said one – but the audience at this concert would add it clearly also takes excellent coordination and mastery of a variety of techniques.

The choir was rewarded for its performance with a standing ovation, and responded with an additional song, after which the audience flocked to the front of the church to talk with the musicians.

In between songs, the group’s director, Lawrence A. Berdensey, shared a little history of English handbells, talked about the "Bachs and Beethovens of today" who compose handbell music, and answered questions.

Berdensey explained that a handbell choir isn’t like an orchestra, with several different musicians playing a variety of instruments. Instead, it is like a single instrument – a piano, for example – and each member is like a part of the keyboard.

At the same time, the bells also are played in a variety of ways that make them sound similar to other musical instruments – thumped into the 4-inch-thick foam pad on the table, struck with a mallet, or "plucked" by pulling back the clapper as the bell lies on the table.

Using these kinds of techniques and with the addition of chimes, the choir created sounds that brought to mind falling snow, the clip-clop of horse hooves, toy figures at play, tolling church bells and more.

Choir members – who come from Ellington, Manchester, Tolland, South Windsor, Vernon, Newington, Simsbury and Gales Ferry – practice once a week, and perform several times in the spring and winter. (Read more about them at http://hvringers.org)

Some of members have musical training and play other instruments – such as David Rauscher, a college student, and Berdensey, a middle school music teacher with multiple degrees – but others came to the choir with little or no experience and have stayed because of the bonds of friendship and the escape it offers from everyday stresses.

For Paula Haney of Manchester, with 35 years of experience, being in the bell choir allows her to enjoy more time with her granddaughters, Kate Barno (who began with the choir when she was 13) and Peggy Haney (now playing for 18 years). "They encourage me," she said and confessed feeling nervous when she performs.

The choir first formed in 2005 in response to a request for a handbell ensemble to perform with the Traveler’s Choral Club, said choir historian Carol Aronson of Manchester.

Greg Fisher, who recently retired as the choir’s director, was interested in organizing a “community” ensemble to promote the art of English handbell ringing, she said, and invited ringers from area churches to audition. Ringers often belong to more than one ensemble.

Rehearsals began in October of 2005, Aronson said, with bells and chimes belonging to Trinity Lutheran Church in Vernon and Rockville United Methodist Church. "Trinity Lutheran lets us use their facility, bells chimes, and other equipment for rehearsals and still does. We truly appreciate their generosity," Aronson said.

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