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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."

Willmore said she's aware the tambre of the handbells is limited. She planned some pieces to include a flute, marimbas and the organ. Some of the instrumentalists will perform solo pieces in between the handbell numbers as well. Willmore hopes to keep things interesting for everyone and the ringers believe her program will do so.

"Because of the variety of music we've got this time, it will appeal to a lot of different people," Wilcox said. "It's not just one style of music."

The bell ringers believe the overall feeling this concert will produce extends beyond its exciting variety and appeal.

"At least for me, this concert in particular, the choice of music is just joyful and peaceful," Wright said. Wilcox agrees "there's something about" the musical selection for this concert.

In talking about the upcoming concert, the bell choir's admiration and respect for their conductor is evident. The feeling is reciprocated.

"They are the most devoted group of people," Willmore said, citing the required 90 percent rehearsal and performance attendance and adding, "They give up so much so that they can be to their rehearsals all the time."

The choir rehearses every Wednesday. Each concert requires about five months of rehearsal, and they add extra Saturday rehearsals for a few weeks prior to concerts. Coming from varied, busy backgrounds, the choir members are dedicated. Wilcox, for example, commutes from Logan to Salt Lake City for every rehearsal.

"The ringers are just awesome," Smith said. He talked about their faithful practicing and impressive sight-reading skills. "They're dedicated. They're incredible musicians."

But the best part, Willmore says, is the spirit the bell ringers bring to rehearsals and performances.

"When you see them ring, they just radiate the spirit of the message of the song in their faces," she said. "What they're radiating is what they are. ... Every rehearsal is very joyful."

The feeling conveyed by the ringers and the whole visual aspect of the concert are the things that really set this concert apart and make it a worthwhile Christmas tradition, Willmore said.

"It's so visually interesting to watch the bells," she said. "We aren't like music that you just listen to. The interesting thing about bells is to watch them." Wright agreed.

"It's a different sort of musical experience," she said.

If you go …

What: The Bells on Temple Square, "Ringing in the Seasons"

Where: Salt Lake Tabernacle, Temple Square

When: Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m.

Note: While the concert is currently sold out, seats will only be held for ticketholders until 15 minutes before the performance. At that time, seats will be available for people in the standby line. The line will form at the flag pole on Temple Square prior to the event. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.mormontabernaclechoir.org/ or visit the events page on lds.org.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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