Okanagan Symphony Orchestra brings rare handbell performance

One of the top Canadian solo handbell players, Susan Carscadden-Mifsud (left), will join her friend, Nikki Attwell of West Kelowna, for the premier of the Okanagan Handbell Chorus this weekend.  - contributed
One of the top Canadian solo handbell players, Susan Carscadden-Mifsud (left), will join her friend, Nikki Attwell of West Kelowna, for the premier of the Okanagan Handbell Chorus this weekend.
— image credit: contributed

For the secular crowd, it will be a rare opportunity to see someone perform with handbells.

The multi-octave handbell sets, this one to include 54 bells, are not a common instrument outside of a church and are rarely performed with an orchestra, as this weekend's Okanagan Symphony Orchestra concert delivers.

"They're an instrument that are as flexible as any other. They can play any kind of music in any setting…(and) it's a very visual performance. You just get this whole sea of shiny motion flying through the air," said Nikki Attwell, who leads the Okanagan Handbell Chorus, which marks its debut with the show.

Made of brass, with either a flexible plastic handle or a leather one, handbells come in octave sets of up to eight octaves, a bell for each note just like piano keys. This weekend's performance will include four and a half octaves, requiring 12 performers to play the music.

With the bells carefully laid out upon a long, padded table, the musicians will dance along to the music with perfect rhythmic precision as the audience, for at least three of the songs, sings along.

"About ten years ago we did a similar concert with an orchestra in London, Ontario," said Attwell. "We had talked about wanting to do a similar sort of thing…when Rose approached me about working with the OSO."

Musical director and conductor Rosemary Thomson is known for thinking outside the box as she plans the OSO's concerts, introducing new music to local audiences with compositions by local composers and keeping the performances real for new orchestra enthusiasts with nights like this coming February's movie themed concert.

Pulling one of the top solo handbell players in Canada, Susan Carscadden-Mifsud, in for this Christmas performance, Thomson will ensure Okanagan audiences get a taste of this unique instrument's complexity without loosing the familiarity that makes Christmas music so poignant at this time of year.

Asked to describe just how her performance will play out, Carscadden-Mifsud admitted words only befuddle the its beauty.

"It's something that's pretty difficult to explain," she said. "You kind of have to see it in action."

Carscadden-Mifsud is on YouTube showing the world just exactly what she means. With an astonishing agility and grace, she glides along behind a table ringing the bells with the look of someone who lives and breaths for the sound of their ring.

"The tradition of church bell tower ringing is where handbells began—as a rehearsal instrument for tower ringing," she said. "Over time it sort of evolved into the handbells being rung separately from the tower bells."

If there's a choir that combines the skills, she doesn't know it; but handbell ringers have been known to lead the tower bell ringing in churches as well.

Handbell ringing is a bit of a time-honoured tradition in Carscadden-Mifsud's family. Joined by her youngest sister, from Salmon Arm, in this performance, Carscadden-Mifsud said all of her siblings play, having learned from their mother on a set their grandmother bought for the family. This is quite rare for handbell players who typically join a choir to play the instrument.

Attwell and Carscadden-Mifsud also met while playing the bells in London, Ontario; they each have over thirty years of experience (Attwell started in 1977 and Carscadden-Mifsud in 1974).

There are only three handbell choirs in Kelowna.

Performances for the OSO Christmas Special will be held Friday, Dec. 16 at the Cleland Theatre in Penticton, Saturday, Dec. 17 at the Kelowna Community Theatre and Sunday, December 18 in the Vernon & District Performing Arts Centre—all at 7 p.m.

Tickets are available through TicketMaster at 1-855-985-5000 or www.ticketmaster.ca, for $41.


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