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Bell choir to visit Europe

Dorea Lauer, in rehearsal at the UCC Church of New London, plays some of the heavier bells for the Spirit Bells. The ensemble performs at the Festival of Three concert tour in Europe this week. John Faucher Photo

New London brings music for peace

By John Faucher

The basement walls of the United Church of Christ in New London have bounced around some unique arrangements this past year.

The church’s basement is the rehearsal home of the UCC New London Spirit Bells, a bell choir ensemble that’s been busy preparing for its international debut.

William Brandt, Spirit Bells director, along with 13 ringers, one singer and six companions departed for Helsinki Finland on June 17.

A little over a year ago, the Spirit Bells received an invitation to perform at the Festival of Three Concerts in Finland, Latvia and Estonia, June 18-24.

Brandt and the Spirit Bells will make history as the first American handbell choir invited to perform in the festival.

The festival brings together choirs and musical ensembles that perform solo and combined concerts in three countries. The concerts are themed on peace. The goal is to build international relationships through music.

During their tour, the Spirit Bells will join in performances with the Grammy-winning Estonian Girls Choir Ellerhein, Latvia’s Youth Choir Balsis, and The Singers Club of Cleveland.

On Thursday, June 22, the three vocal choirs and Spirit Bells will perform a world premier piece written by Estonian composer Pärt Uusberg.

Thousands are expected to attend the concert at the Kaarli Church in Tallinn, Estonia.

By the time the Spirit Bells reach their final concert they will have performed at the Church in the Rock in Helsinki Finland and St. John’s Cathedral in Riga, Latvia.

Complex music

According to Brandt, handbell music is rated in levels one through five, with an additional level of six, which has yet to see music written.

Level four and above is considered professional. Most of what the Spirit Bells will perform on the tour is at or above level four.

“This is some pretty advanced stuff,” said Brandt during a recent rehearsal break in the church basement.

The Spirit Bells will have a complex 25-minute long set during the gala concert.

“Our set requires moving around places,” Brandt said.

“We’re starting in the audience and we are doing a technique called water bells. So you play the bell and dip it into water and it gives it a real shimmery sort of ethereal sound.”

Brandt said most professional groups do not attempt the technique because it can damage the bells.

The group will be using bells rented overseas since it is extremely expensive and difficult to travel with a complete handbell set. The set includes 143 bells and chimes plus auxiliary instruments. It fills 19 large cases and would cost over $3,000 to ship.

Producers of the festival have sourced bells for each concert location.

Estonia does have a professional handbell choir that will join the Spirit Bells in the final concert of the festival.

Big experience

Brandt expects the concert will be a big experience for everyone involved. He said it will also be recorded.

“Pärt Uusberg wrote his premier piece for three individual choirs, which is very unique in and of itself and then we have bells that were added to it,” Brandt said.

“The choir [Spirit Bells] did a piece at Christmas time with two choirs, plus bells and it was really, really tricky, let alone three choirs, plus bells,” said Brandt.

He and Festival Conductor Dr. Eric Johnson wrote the handbell part for this Thursday’s performance.

“It sort of weaves together these three musical ensembles, plus us, so four total ensembles, which is a tricky thing to do,” Brandt said.

“All of this with only 15 minutes of combined rehearsal the day of the concert,” he added.

“It is a little nerve racking, but it will be a great experience,” said Brandt.

Diverse group

Spirit Bell members are a diverse group with all types of backgrounds ranging in ages from 13 to 80 years old.

“We have everybody in between. We have people who have families that have grown up in the church and people who just came to the church. We have people with no musical background and people who are professional musicians,” Brandt said.

“It’s just all over the place and that’s what makes it so special.”

Brandt said there was tremendous buy-in from the group planning to travel to the festival.

Those signing up for the trip were expected to self fund their tours and they faced a more aggressive rehearsal schedule in preparations this past year.

Andy Schmidt and several of his family members are on the trip.

“I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t get to spend a lot of time like this, with family, plus the music is awesome,” Schmidt said after a recent rehearsal.

Schmidt, a New London native, has been involved in music his whole life. He is currently the middle and high school band director for the Weyauwega-Fremont School District.

He’s played just about every musical instrument there is, but only recently took up the hand bells.

He plays D and E and the ones in between for the choir.

“The music reading itself is the same, but you have to pick out your part,” said Schmidt.

“That part was easy enough for me; it’s just a matter of what’s the best way to make the sound,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun learning all the different techniques to make different sounds. That’s the learning part for me is how to apply it to this instrument,” Schmidt said. “Everybody has their own parts but it’s all tied together.”

Thirteen year-old CJ Hasz is the group’s youngest member on the trip.

“C.J. is also our newest member and a very talented musician. We sort of conscripted him into our handbell choir and he’s applying all of his previous musical ability,” said Brandt.

“He’s one of those rare people at his young age, who can accomplish all of the mental facets that it takes to play this instrument,” Brandt said.

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