If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of the 21st Century seems to have a unique timbre, resonance and dimension, perhaps it is not altogether due to the presence of the Orchestra at Temple Square, the distinctive direction of Craig Jessop or the innovative arrangements of Mack Wilberg. For the past several years, the choir's sound has been augmented by the ringing of English hand bells.
Rung at first by members of the choir itself, the bells have become an ever more frequent presence in concerts of the choir and orchestra, their clear sound lending an air of jubilation to songs and hymns. For about a year now, the bell ringing performances have been assumed by a new group dedicated to that purpose, the Bells on Temple Square.
Attenders at the recent Christmas concert of the choir and orchestra, and at a sold-out Dec. 22 concert at Libby Gardner Hall on the University of Utah campus are familiar with the group, which has also been featured on some of the choir's "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcasts and at an inaugural concert this past September in the Little Theater of the Conference Center.
"The main purpose of Bells on Temple Square is to support Dr. Jessop and the Tabernacle Choir," said Bells conductor Thomas Waldron. "And then, beyond that, we'll have some experiences of our own with performing."
Judging from its few appearances so far, the Bells group is a hit.
"I think their popularity is the cleanness of the sound," Brother Waldron said. "They create an overtone series that can, at times, sound like you've got an organ and brass choir going together. And it's extremely visual. lt's almost like watching a dance in front of you as well as hearing the music."
A bell choir exhibits a surprising versatility, the conductor noted. "You can create articulated sounds that would give you a pizzicato (plucked strings) effect, or a malleting effect, like it was becoming percussive in nature."
Having sung on and off with the choir since 1973, Brother Waldron was unwittingly preparing himself for a time when the choir would need a bell choir conductor. In 1981, when he was teaching music at Brighton High School in Salt Lake County, an all-state high school choir was accompanied by hand bells.
"I loved it so much," he said, "that we sold candy bars at the school to get enough money to buy a two-octave set of hand bells simply so we could do this same number all by ourselves the next year." With more candy bar sales and support from the principal, the school acquired enough bells from him to eventually start a bell choir of 24 ringers with a five-octave set.
As a Tabernacle Choir member, Brother Waldron helped borrow some bells for some Wilberg-arranged literature the choir was performing, notably the popular Christmas selection "I Saw Three Ships." One day, Brother Jessop invited him into his office and asked him to write down anything he would like to start a bell choir. He was told to "think big." Over a year later, Brother Jessop told him to go ahead and order the bells, this made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor.
He ordered two sets of seven octaves of hand bells, nearly covering the entire range of a piano keyboard.
About a year ago, the choir office called for auditions for the bell choir. A field of 204 respondents was pared down to 100, from which 28 were selected to be the inaugural members of the Bells on Temple Square, with four substitutes. Ranging in age from 25 to 45, they are all musicians, though not all have had previous experience with bells.
A few openings have come about, and the group is holding auditions on Jan. 14. Interested persons can download an application from the Tabernacle Choir Web site, www.mormontabernaclechoir.org.
E-mail to: [email protected]