Arriving early at the Performing Arts Centre (PAC) on Sunday for the Okanagan Symphony’s Christmas concert, we found the foyer full of people. Even music director Rosemary Thomson (usually backstage at this point) was there.
This was for a pre-concert performance by the Vernon Community Music School’s Carriage House Orchestra, Debut Orchestra and Suzuki Group –– 35 musicians, some only five years old, led by Bev Martens (mother of Camille Martens) and Morna Howie.
For the main event the stage was set very differently. An arc of tables surrounded the conductor’s podium, ready for the musicians from the Okanagan Handbell Chorus, specially formed for this concert.
Since becoming conductor for the OSO, Thomson has wowed audiences with her creativity in program choices. We’ve had bagpipes (requiring special tuning for matching the orchestra pitch), and ballet dancers (requiring the orchestra to be in the darkened upstage area).
This time, the principal “soloist”, was a group of 12 handbell ringers, mostly Okanagan Valley natives or residents. All ring for (or direct) other bell choirs, and most are members of the B.C. Guild of English Handbell Ringers.
But first, Thomson warned us that not all Christmas music is festive. Christmas has its dark side, and she announced “a dark piece” (without the bells) – Zum Lauten.
The composer, Bachman, had been inspired by ancient church bells in Germany. A wonderfully dramatic opening in the trumpets (in a minor key) led to a calmer section suggesting distant bells.
The music was often sparse, sometimes troubled, sometimes majestic. I wanted to clap during the wonderful and awesome crescendo, but of course that’s considered inappropriate.
After rousing applause, Thomson confided: “I hope you all feel a little uncomfortable!”
Then the bell ringers took their positions. Together they rang 54 bells. These were of bronze, polished to a golden glow, with a sound quite different from the kind of handbell used when I was at school.
This was a softer sound, with a beautifully sustained ring. At times, to achieve variety of tone, the ring would be muted, sometimes the bell (left on the table) would be struck with padded drumsticks. The ringers wore gloves so as to eliminate finger marks (also avoiding risk of corrosion).
It had taken two years of thinking and planning to bring this concert together.
After three months of independently practising on their own, the group rehearsed for the first time on the Wednesday before the concert.
Thomson confessed that her face was hurting after four days of constant smiling!
Playing with the orchestra (Hark! Christmas Bells), the sound was such a wonderful blend. Surely this was the true sound of Christmas? And for the second piece (It Came Upon the Midnight Clear) the audience was invited to sing along.
So with the house light on, and the words in the program, we all joined in.
“I remember you Vernon people! You ALWAYS sing along. You’re the best, but don’t tell the rest of the Okanagan,” exclaimed Thomson.
For the next piece, Sue Carscadden-Mifsud changed place with Thomson, who thoroughly enjoyed using the full swing (the way church bells swing).
By way of a change, marimba soloist Bruce Henzel played, “as a Christmas concerto”, three well-known carols, but with unusual arrangements. One was Bulgarian, and one was even in 7/8 time.
Many more pieces followed, including three different sleigh songs. Even The Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker Suite was thus described.
They closed with Joy To The World –– orchestra, bells, and audience. Truly glorious!
–– Jim Elderton is a local freelance writer and filmmaker who covers the Okanagan Symphony and classical music concerts for The Morning Star.