Handbells are heavily represented in religious music, and as usual, the choir's concert repertoire seemed to be an even mix of church and secular or contemporary pieces. The first piece on the program, Michael Joy's "Fanfare of Triumph," seemed to split the church and non-church difference as the choristers entered ringing. The piece's harmonies sounded a little strange, but not unpleasant, and the choirs rendition started the concert on a technically excellent note.
The next piece, a setting of "All the Pretty Little Horses," used wind-chimes, striking the bells with mallets instead of ringing them. Other sound effects included an intriguing woodwind-like effect obtained by ringing the bell and immediately touching it to the tablecloth.
After a simple, yet percussive and fun arrangement of "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?," conductor Jill Mahr took the podium to speak to the audience. The misleadingly named "Radiance," a requiem by William Payn, followed on a somber and subdued note, using the bells after-echoes persuasively.
The first of two Kevin McChesney pieces, "Canticle of a Festive Day," used lots of chimes to live up to its name. An arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn's "Oh, Rest in the Lord" for bell choir and vocalists featured ringers Liz Steffensen '08 and Kristin Anderson '09 using their other instruments, their wonderful voices. As well as singing superbly, they balanced excellently with the bell choir.
Mahr noted that fast rock tempo is not a marking one usually sees on bell music, but the choir pulled off the McChesney piece Synergy, marked in that time, in exciting fashion. The pieces low beat and stop-on-a-dime ending were a nice change of pace.
Mahr herself, a flautist and flute instructor, joined the choir as a soloist for an arrangement of "I Come with Joy" by Margaret Tucker. Mahr's performance was beautiful and technically excellent, and she also managed to merge her sound perfectly with that of the bell choir.
The penultimate piece was an arrangement of "Camille Saint-Saens Danse Macabre" for bell choir by Michael Keller, as befit the concerts Halloween-eve timing. To set the proper mood, the choir exited and re-entered wearing various Halloween masks. Judging from the amount of bell-switching by the ringers, the arrangement was difficult, but the choir pulled it off in rousing fashion. Although the violinist in me missed the concertmasters solo in the orchestral arrangement, the bells more than did justice to the pieces seasonal spookiness.
The final piece on the program combined bells and handclaps and ended with the ringers turning their bells upright, concluding in a lively fashion. The traditional St. Olaf standing ovation was well-deserved in this case, and for the first time in 11 years, as Mahr noted, the choir was able to reciprocate by playing an encore they had finally gotten around to learning.