SCHENECTADY — Everyone has heard church bells chime, but those are mostly automated systems. Handbells rung by humans have a completely different effect. On Sunday afternoon at First United Methodist Church as part of the church’s music series, the 16-member Westminster Concert Bell Choir gave a capacity crowd an entertaining and informative performance of how complex the art of ringing can be.
The choir of eight ladies dressed in wine-colored gowns and eight men in tuxes are students at Westminster College of the Arts in Princeton, New Jersey, in a program that was established in 1978, the first in this country. This was the first stop on their seven-state, 11-day tour. Led by director Kathleen Ebling Shaw, the choir performed a wide range of music from the baroque to spirituals to pieces written for the group.
They were lined up in front of a long table draped in black facing the crowd. As pieces were performed, Shaw gave small tutorials. The treble bells are made of bronze; the bass are made of aluminum, which not only allows lower tones to travel faster through it but the larger bass bells weigh less than the smaller bronze ones.There were more than 90 bells, each one pitched to equal at least seven octaves. The ringers, who all wore black gloves, each played two handbells.
They began with Kevin McChesney’s “Tempest,” followed by two movements from Handel’s “Water Music” with the very good pianist John Franck. The sound in the treble bells was tinkley and delicate with the bass tones plucking mellow but muted tones. The overall sound was similar to glass harmonica or hearing wind chimes when the breeze ruffles them. Other tunes included Karen Buckwalter’s serene and pretty “Reflections”; Saint-Saens’ evocative “The Swan”; the spiritual “Wade in the Water”; and “The Water is Wide.” Surprisingly, volume could be controlled which allowed for softer and louder moments.
Besides being adept and agile with faster moving scales, the ensemble, which was very well rehearsed, showed other techniques. These included using the echo effect in which they rang the bell in a lifting motion and then let it fall to their waist, where the tone’s harmonics sounded; the gyro in which they ring the bell in a circular motion; stroking the lip of the bell, which sustained the tone; tapping the bell lightly like a triangle; or putting the bell on the table and gently hitting it with a mallet, which sounds like a plunk. The ringers are also singers, who perform with the college’s choir, which has sung with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
They sang “By the Water of Babylon” and rang a kind of wind chime, which is a pitched aluminum tube. That was beautiful as was most of the program. Only the arrangement of the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” didn’t fare well. The longer fast scales were not cleanly rung, so harmonies were garbled.