Handbell Ensemble plays familiar Christmas tunes

The choir is directed by Stephanie Wiltse.  Photo by Elizabeth Lamoureux
The choir is directed by Stephanie Wiltse. Photo by Elizabeth Lamoureux

At 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, Calvin’s Handbell Ensemble geared up again to finish out on a good note. Students could display their skills and talents during their annual Christmas concert. Calvin’s Handbell Ensemble was paired with the Valenti Handbell Ensemble from Aquinas College. After a word of prayer by Stephanie Wiltse, the conductor of the Calvin Handbell Ensemble, the music began.

Stephanie Wiltse has been the conductor since the fall of 2001, and is currently also the director of the Valenti Handbell Ensemble of Aquinas College. Wiltse then related to the audience some background history on the ensemble itself.

When the Handbell Ensemble first started, a borrowed set of handbells was used for practice and performance. These borrowed bells were soon replaced by a five octave set of Malmark bells donated to the music department by the Calvin Oratorio Society.

The songs ranged from Christmas carols to familiar hymns, also differing in tunes and melodies throughout the night. Beginning with “Fantasy on ‘Hyfrydol’,” a Welsh hymn, both handbell groups showed their talent as they opened the night with strong, ringing notes to the common tune of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Ringing as a combined group for the first song, the groups then split into two groups. The separate groups formed the Calvin group and the Aquinas group. The Valenti Aquinas Handbell Ensemble continued with “Infant Holy,” a traditional Polish carol, “Meditation on a Scottish Melody” and “Gesu Bambino,” an Italian Christmas carol whose refrain is set to the tune of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

The Calvin Handbell Ensemble followed separately, beginning with “A Festive Introit.” This particular song was given a special note by Stephanie Wiltse.

She noted that this particular song was originally a piece for two bell trees and handbell accompaniment. Alyssa Van Dyk, a junior at Calvin, and Christina Thompson, a senior, each played a bell tree: a group of bells strung together with interlocking handles and struck with a mallet.

The Calvin Ensemble followed with “Impressions on an Advent Carol” and “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.” The Calvin group also showed their love for the bells in their knowledge of each piece and how clearly the piece was projected to the audience.

The concert was completed with the handbell version of the traditional Ukranian Carol “Bell Carol,” also known to most as “The Carol of the Bells,” which Wiltse noted was an asked-for favorite among audiences.

“This song was originally about the springtime, and the life in nature,” Stephanie Wiltse said. “But it was then re-written for the Christmastime and the enamored ringing of the bells.”

Christina Thompson said how excited she is to work with the Calvin Handbell Ensemble.

“It’s something that I discovered in high school,” she says. “When I found out how much I loved it, I just couldn’t put it down. I don’t find it a chore but more of a way to release. It is definitely relaxing for me, and I’m very excited to continue with this group next semester.”

The Calvin Handbell Ensemble will be on break for the length of the January interim, but they will gather again come the beginning of the spring semester next year.

About the Author

Elizabeth Lamoureux

Elizabeth Lamoureux is a Chimes guest writer for the 2012-13 school year.

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