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Bells on Temple Square Christmas tradition continues under new conductor

Published: Saturday, Nov. 12 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

The Bells on Temple Square performs in last year's Christmas concert. This year's will be held on Nov. 18.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir ©

SALT LAKE CITY — On Nov. 18, the Bells on Temple Square will ring in the holiday season — literally.

This year's annual Christmas concert, "Ringing in the Seasons," will not only display a variety of music to bridge Thanksgiving to Christmas. It will also be the choir's first concert with LeAnna Willmore as conductor.

The Bells on Temple Square was officially formed in 2005, though thanks to Craig Jessop and President Gordon B. Hinckley's particular love of English handbells, Jessop had been incorporating their use in a number of songs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for a few years prior.

Jessop's good friend Thomas Waldron, then a choral director with his own bell choir at Brighton High School, was called to form an official handbell group to join the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square. Their principal function is to accompany the choir, but the 28-member bell choir, armed with a 7-octave set of bells and 6-octave sets of chimes, does its own performances as well.

"When I was called to this, I guess I was a little bit naive not knowing it was a full-on organization," said Larry Smith, the new associate conductor of Bells on Temple Square and a choir teacher at Bountiful High School. He didn't know beforehand the bell choir had separate concerts — two each year. Now that he has been involved for a few months, he compares the time commitment and work of bell choir members to that of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Willmore, who was an award-winning high school vocal and bell choir teacher for 39 years, was Waldron's associate conductor from the beginning.

Smith explained his call as Willmore's associate conductor wasn't even on his radar. He had worked with Willmore when he was a student teacher at Bingham High School, and Willmore had put his name in as a potential candidate to be called to the post. Though new to the bell choir scene, he has enjoyed his new calling and working with Willmore.

"She's so well-respected throughout the state," he said. "It's just great to work with her every week."

The choir members were pleased with Willmore's appointment.

"Once she was appointed I just felt like it was a perfect fit," said Darrell Wilcox, a bell ringer who's been with the choir since its formation. "She had done such a good job as associate conductor."

Fellow ringer Cortney Wright agrees Willmore was an excellent choice and made for a peaceful transition after Waldron finished his tenure with the choir. And Wright is excited about what Willmore has brought to the table so far.

"She made it really clear the first rehearsal we had ... that she was seeking inspiration in everything she was doing, and that's really shown," Wright said.

"You know, there's not a lot of Thanksgiving songs," Willmore said, as she started to explain the structure of the program for the concert. She said she worked hard to find what she described as "beautiful hymns about gratitude to the Savior." Songs like "How Can I Keep from Singing?" and "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 will be heard in that portion of the concert.

After performing songs to capture the spirit of Thanksgiving, the choir will move into a variety of more intricate and classical pieces. Willmore believes "Bugler's Holiday" will be a crowd-pleaser. Wright, Wilcox and Willmore are all particularly excited about "Russian Sailor's Dance," by Reinhold Gliere. Willmore called the piece "phenomenally hard to play."

Following the classical section, the choir will transition into Christmas songs, including the upbeat "Sleigh Ride," and more soothing tunes like "Oh Holy Night."

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