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Thursday, May 5, 2011 03:56 pm

A ringing success

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Bells in Motion presents “Bronze Vibrations” concerts May 7 in Bloomington and May 8 in Springfield.

Bells in Motion, a locally based, nationally known, professional handbell ensemble, gets my vote as one of the most interesting creative organizations in town. The 16-member group literally puts bells in motion playing songs by singly ringing differently pitched bells together to make music happen with a clang and a clank.

Conceived and coordinated by music director Michael Lamb in 1997, the group has since toured the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Italy, plus several states, with a 2012 tour planned to Canada. It has produced three full-length recordings and received the 2009 Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Arts Organization from the Springfield Area Arts Council.

“I started out helping the church choir director, then we wanted a handbell group,” explains Lamb, a multi-instrumentalist musician and accomplished conductor. “From that we expanded into Bells in Motion.”

When Lamb, an enthusiast of the art since 1983, heard a small handbell group perform jazz tunes and other secular music numbers, the bells went off to start his own organization. He liked the idea of a larger ensemble performing unusual musical selections accompanied by a rhythm section and other instruments. The concept took the genre to a whole new level, creating a once atypical and now emulated sound in the process.

“I thought it was a niche we could do and one of the things I really like is introducing handbells to places they wouldn’t normally go,” says Lamb. “At first it was difficult finding arranged pieces for us to do, then we commissioned some and more works became available.”

In the Mood, the big band standard, was an early addition to the Bells in Motion repertoire, becoming a staple for the group, now recognized for introducing the arrangement into the handbell canon. A variety of tunes, including hymns, pop songs and jazz numbers, inhabit the 100-plus titles in the ensemble catalog. Diversity is indeed a goal of Lamb’s, one he has accomplished well, gaining accolades from audiences and peers alike.

“We’re known for doing original commissioned works and appealing to a wide variety of tastes,” says Lamb. “I say if you don’t like the song we’re playing, just wait for the next one.”

The handbell universe contains local, regional, national and international societies with conventions, workshops and concerts. Members of Bells in Motion come from as far away as St. Louis, Iowa and Wisconsin, while most live in the Springfield area and greater central Illinois.

“We’re very lucky to have such good ringers with an excellent core group that allows us to be able to bring in guests,” says Lamb. “Being a good ringer is like being any other good musician, it takes a sensitivity to the music and lots of practice and dedication.”

Most of the performers are involved in the music profession outside the group and all have other obligations that force the ensemble into a turnover rate of 20 to 30 percent every few years, according to Lamb. Members often rejoin when time permits, but the commitment level is substantial, as Lamb knows better than anyone. At the close of the 2012 season he retires after 15 years as musical director, leaving behind the group he designed and built for a well-deserved break.

“We’ve got a good organization in place and they’re looking for my replacement,” said Lamb. “I’m definitely going to miss it, but Bells in Motion will continue.”

Bells in Motion presents “Bronze Vibrations” concerts May 7, 7 p.m. at Wesley United Methodist Church in Bloomington and May 8, 4 p.m. at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Springfield. Featuring selections from the group’s latest CD, Bronze Images, and including guest musicians Theresa O’Hare, Joe Kath and Karen Ferguson, material ranges from Georgia on my Mind, the William Tell Overture, Good Vibrations, a hymn and a Celtic-influenced trilogy. For more information go to www.bellsinmotion.org.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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