When the Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble joins the MSO for the Holiday Pops, they have learned to be prepared for anything, including last-minute requests from the conductor.
John Behnke, the group’s director, says that for Christmases past, “Doc Severinsen would say during rehearsal, ‘Can you put some bells to this?’ I would say, ‘Tomorrow you’ll have it but not today. I have to tell the ringers what they’re doing.’ But Doc’s a jazz guy, and you improvise.” Behnke remembered one concert when Severinsen, at the last rehearsal, had the idea to put the handbell ensemble in the loges at the side of Uihlein Hall, wearing white gloves and lighted with ultraviolet light, in order to provide an introduction to “Carol of the Bells.” “Doc said, ‘Do 24 bars and we’ll take it from there.’”
In more recent years, Behnke said, the main improviser has been guest pops conductor Jeff Tyzik, who once added a handbell part to an orchestration that Tyzik had written. Behnke took a look, “and I said, ‘It’s OK but it’s pretty skinny. Can I fatten it out?’ And he said OK.”
What Behnke meant, which he has learned in four decades of leading handbell groups, is that a few bells easily gets lost in a large space. For the sound to carry, he writes the melody in more than one octave, supported by chords.
This weekend’s concert will also feature some of Behnke’s arrangements for handbells and orchestra, which he said is “getting out of my comfort zone.” The musicians of the MSO are “some of the world’s best players, and I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” But the pieces have been well received in the past, and there is not much published repertoire – as Severinsen and Tyzik have learned. He writes for strings only, since brass can overwhelm bells easily. And when the ringers are at the front of the stage, without extra bells on a table in front of them, they are essentially limited to one key, and the music has to be memorized.
Behnke, who directed handbells at Concordia University for 29 years, founded the Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble in 2003, in part to give former students and other talented ringers an outlet for playing at a high level. This season will be his last leading the group; a search is underway for his successor.
To be a really good handbell ringer, “rhythm is the most important thing,” Behnke said. “We have to hit subdivisions within the beats. The percussion players sit in front of us (at the Holiday Pops concert), and they’re always amazed at our precision, because we’re hitting sixteenth notes.”
With fourteen ringers and six octaves of bells, “almost anything is possible for us,” Behnke said. But because of the Christmas associations, “December is definitely the month of handbells.” His group has two concerts of its own in December, and they are now a fixture of the Milwaukee Symphony’s holiday season.
“The Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble has become a highly anticipated and much-loved part of our Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops tradition,” said Susan Loris, the MSO’s executive vice president for institutional advancement. She called the group “a talented, professional group that bring tremendous joy and energy to every performance. Our pops audiences look forward to seeing them every year.”
The ensemble makes a point of being versatile. Its season-ending program last spring “went from Bach to the Beatles,” Behnke said. “We play ‘Footloose’ by Kenny Loggins, and it gets pretty raucous. People are amazed at what music can be played by bells.”