By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram Staff WriterDecember 13, 2011
Holiday music composed centuries ago came to life Dec. 6 on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage compliments of the Chapel Ringers.
The Chapel Ringers call Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and the Memorial Chapel home, but during the holidays, the all-volunteer hand bell and choir chime ensemble take their concerts on the road. In years past, The Chapel Ringers have entertained at the Mormon Temple's Festival of Lights and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, but this year, the stage was set for director Edward Asten to book a prime Millennium Stage date.
"Anytime you have the opportunity to play at a venue like the Kennedy Center, it is exciting," Asten said before the early evening performance. "As a member of The Army Band, I've performed there a number of times, but this is a totally new, exciting thing. This is going to be a Family affair; my son [Andrew] is performing [percussion] and my wife [Margaret] is singing and announcing. For the group -- this is a group of volunteers -- none of these people are professional musicians, but most of them are pretty experienced hand bell ringers. It is very important for them to support the chapel services, and it is important to go the Kennedy Center and do what they do well."
The 26-handed human carillon produced an 11-song, Tuesday evening set which included holiday selections ranging from Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" to medieval carols and hymns. During back-to-back selections, the group took a fun-filled musical jaunt with "A Charlie Brown Christmas" medley and then followed with a bold, sound-filled rendition of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
For Ginni Sievers, an original ringer who has been performing for 22 years, the trip to the Kennedy Center was a major league gig. She has played at the White House and throughout Virginia and Maryland, and she started as a bell ringer beginner.
"I didn't really read music; I sing in the choir, but I sing by ear," Sievers explained. "So when I asked Eddie, 'Do you have to know how to read music to play [hand bells]?,' he told me to give it a try. I figure if they could teach little kids how to play hand bells, they could teach me."
The group also played a number of secular favorites including "Parade of the Tin Soldiers" and preceding the concert finale, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" all on stage donned holiday headwear that included Santa and elf hats and reindeer antlers which brought laughter and applause from the crowd.
Taking in the applause for one of the final times was Dick Newsome. The 83-year old Newsome is retiring from bell ringing after the Christmas Eve Memorial Chapel service. Like his counterpart Sievers, Newsome is a founding ringer, but he knows it is time to hang up his bells.
"I've enjoyed it, but it is time to move on," Newsome said. "Because of age, I'm not playing as well as I used to; it's time to get somebody younger to step in."
Other members of The Chapel Ringers are Peter Rich, Heather Tribble, Melissa Talbot, Sarah Overson, Deborah Jones, Joann Golden, Karen Eggert, Barbara Driggins, Sherry Butler, Henry Butler and James Bensinger.
The percussion trio included Andrew Asten, Kevin Murphy and Orion Schomber. The group's vocalist and announcer for the evening was Margaret Asten.
The final performance of the holiday season for the Chapel Ringers takes place on Dec. 24 when they team with The Chapel Choir at Memorial Chapel starting at 4:30 p.m prior to the solemn Christmas Mass.