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Wesley Bell choir celebrates 50 years of ringing true

Published June 20, 2013 6:24 pm

Music • Utah church troupe plans golden anniversary tour, concert.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lights glinted off the brass bells in Christ United Methodist Church as music filled the sanctuary.

The bells — more than 50 of them — melded seamlessly into a single song.

It's these young musicians' time to shine and chime (and fix even the tiniest of glitches) as they rehearse for the final time before embarking on yet another summer concert tour.

But this trip promises to be different. This journey to the nation's Rust Belt and New England will mark the 50th anniversary of the Wesley Bell Ringers.

The celebrated Salt Lake City troupe, born in 1963 and touring since 1966, has visited all 50 states and every Canadian province. The musicians have performed at Mount Rushmore and the U.S. Capitol, Disney World and Utah's 2002 Winter Olympics. They have played with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony.

Edwin Duncan brought the idea of a bell choir to Christ United Methodist Church when he moved to Salt Lake City to be the congregation's youth leader. Duncan had seen such a choir playing on a street corner in Latrobe, Pa., the Christmas before he moved.

"I thought, 'That seems pretty neat,' " Duncan recalled. " 'Maybe I'll get a chance to do that someday.' "

That day arrived in 1963. Church leaders were brainstorming for ways to bring more teens into the church, and a bell, so to speak, when off inside Duncan. Why not, he suggested, start a bell choir?

So he and nine youths sold hoagie sandwiches to raise the $640 needed to buy 25 hand bells. Six months later, they reached their goal and bought the bells.

Since that makeshift beginning, more than 450 high school students have pealed, tolled and chimed for the Wesley Bell Ringers, providing music, memories and friendships that last into adulthood.

"We're still getting together and hanging out," said Jeffrey Wood, who graduated from high school last year. "The friendships will last forever."

Bells are even passed from one generation to the next.

Former Ringers Eric and Jeanette Mittelstadt met in the choir, and now both their sons are in the group.

"I joined because both my parents were in it," explained Alec Mittelstadt, a senior Ringer. "They said it was fun. They were right."

The group's current director, Terry Waite, who succeeded Duncan in 1996, is himself a Ringer alum. Waite played in the choir from 1967 to 1970, and his sons did so, too, under his direction.

"I love taking kids," Waite said, "from the point where they don't know what to do with a bell to where, collectively, they make really beautiful music."

This year, Waite directs 37 high school students who play more than 100 instruments, including hand chimes, cup bells, a carillon and a boom-a-gong, one of two in existence. The choir practices four hours every week and has a weekend retreat in the fall before Christmas performances and in the spring before the summer tour.

"[The commitment] brings out your highest potential," said Larni Emery, a senior Ringer.

That potential will be on full display on tour — with concerts planned during the next two weeks in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine.

"Terry says your child will change on the tour," said Carla McDowell, whose son, Austin McDowell, is a junior in the choir. "Austin was kind of a nerd [before his first tour]. When he came back, he was more grown up. He had a confidence he didn't have before."

When the group returns, Utahns will get a chance to hear the 50th-anniversary concert on June 29 at Abravanel Hall in downtown Salt Lake City.

The show features three songs especially for the occasion. The Ringers commissioned an arrangement of "Variations on a Theme" by Corelli from Kevin McChesney. Bryce Pulver, a current Ringer, made a special arrangement of "Passepied" by Claude Debussy, and Matthew Compton, a 2013 high school graduate from Colorado Springs, wrote "Rhapsody in G Minor" for the choir after seeing the group perform in Salt Lake City.

The Ringers will also perform two songs adapted for the choir by founder and past director Edwin Duncan — "Noah and the Ark" by Tammy Waldrop and a medley titled "Gospel."

"Ed is a sort of musical genius," said Eric Mittelstadt. "He's remarkable at understanding how music fits together."

An adaptation of the biblical story of Noah, read by junior Ringer Austin McDowell, accompanies "Noah and the Ark."

"When Terry said we needed a narrator with a sense of humor," McDowell said, "everyone was volunteering me."

Ringers Shannon Loveday and Emily Haden dress as storytellers and act out scenes from the New Testament with props as the choir plays "Gospel" behind them.

" 'Gospel' is the signature piece of the Wesley Bell Ringers," Waite said. "It had to be part of our 50th-anniversary program."

And bells provide the signature sound.

lburke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lea_burke —

Wesley Bell Ringers 2013 Home Concert

When • June 29, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple

Note • Arrive early for best seating