The Okanagan Handbell Chorus prepares to take the stage alongside the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra once again for Ringing in the Season, which also features Anthony Lau on harmonica Dec. 21 in Vernon, Dec. 22 in Kelowna and Dec. 23 in Penticton. (Photo submitted)

Okanagan Symphony rings in holiday tradition

Okanagan Symphony Orchestra presents Ringing in the Season Dec. 21 Vernon, 22 Kelowna, 23 Penticton

What started as a method of training to ring the tower bells in England has turned into an Okanagan Christmas tradition.

Featuring the Okanagan Handbell Chorus, the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra presents Ringing in the Season in Vernon Dec. 21, Kelowna Dec. 22 and Penticton Dec. 23.

“People who were practicing to ring the tower bells practiced the pattern on handbells and it spread like wildfire,” said Rosemary Thomson, OSO music director.

And it’s a fire that spread to the OSO in 2011 when Thomson met Nikki Attwell, past president of the B.C. Guild of English Handbell Ringers.

“She put together a group of the best handbell ringers from across the Province,” Thomson said.

The show features 13 ringers covering five octaves, with more than 40 bells, that meshes with the sounds of the orchestra.

“They have an absolutely beautiful, magical sound. I walked into the room where they were practicing and it just blew me away — it really transports you,” Thomson said. “The whole thing about orchestra is that it’s this big, colourful palette of acoustic sounds. You get the rush of power without being plugged in, and the handbells have such a power. Watching them ring, it’s very virtuosic. It surrounds you in such a physical way.”

Leading the handbells chorus is Susan Carscadden-Mifsud, artistic director of the Okanagan Handbell Chorus. And, as Carscadden-Mifsud takes charge, Thomson will pick up a bell and join the chorus.

“Imagine that you’re one of 13 people sitting on a piano bench and you are part of this huge keyboard,” Thomson said, noting that each person on the figurative piano is designated to only a key or two. “It requires heavy concentration.”

That’s what it’s like to perform in a handbell chorus, she said.

And with performers living across the valley, the chorus has only two days to practice as a unit prior to the performance. As a result, ringers study and rehearse individually and the week of performance can be stressful. But, Thomson said, the result is wondrous.

“It’s just a beautiful arrangement,” Thomson said of combining handbells with the orchestra.

Ringing alongside the orchestra, the group will perform old English carols, well-known tracks like We Three Kings and, of course, Carol of the Bells.

Also featured at the Ringing in the Season performance is West Kelowna’s Anthony Lau on the classical harmonica.

“It’s such a beautiful sound,” Thomson said of Lau’s handling of the harmonica. “It’s not the harmonica you hear around the campfire. It’s really wonderful.”

Of note is the performance of O Holy Night overlaid with Gesu bambino, featuring the bells, orchestra and harmonica.

“We’ll also have a few sing-alongs. It’s going to be a really mixed program,” Thomson said. “It’s a collection of some beautiful Christmas music and really puts everyone in the (holiday) spirit.”

Performer and composer Bruce Henczel of the Lower Mainland will also appear on stage with the orchestra.

“He was really taken by the sound of the bells, so he started writing music for them,” Thomson said.

Henczel was a guest artist with the chorus and represented Canada for the 2016 International Handbell Symposium with an original composition.

With bells and the harmonica adding to the powerful and renowned orchestra, Ringing in the Season is a musical force that has carved its way into Okanagan tradition.

“It’s quite lovely because most Christmas parties are done and we find that people are coming with their families,” Thomson said of choosing to hold the performance the weekend before Christmas.

“It just has a really beautiful feel to it. I just love this show.”

The Okanagan Symphony Orchestra presents Ringing in the Season with guest artists Okanagan Handbell Chorus and Anthony Lau on harmonica Dec. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 at the Kelowna Community Theatre and 2 p.m. Dec. 23 at the Cleland Community Theatre in Penticton. Tickets are available for $56.25 adult, $49 senior, $26.25 student and child and $25 for the first two rows. Tickets are available through the OSO, www.okanagansymphony.com.

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