Oratoria

Inspiration rings: Concert showcases Winona’s church bells

  • KRI KNUTSON | kknutson@winonadailynews.com
  • Composer William Neil used the bells at the Chapel of Mary of the Angels in Winona in his piece "Oratoria" for Saint Mary's University. (photo by Katie Derus/Winona Daily News)
    Composer William Neil used the bells at the Chapel of Mary of the Angels in Winona in his piece “Oratoria” for Saint Mary’s University. (photo by Katie Derus/Winona Daily News)

    William Neil heard bells. He wasn’t supposed to.

    The Westby, Wis., composer was at Winona’s Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels to rehearse a piece he’d written when he learned church bells were programmed to go off every 15 minutes during the practice.

    Not ideal for a concert, certainly. But when they rang, the bells struck an idea in Neil’s head.

    “You never know when inspiration will enter your life,” he said.

    Neil decided to incorporate the church’s bells in “Oratoria,” his composition that premieres Saturday at the chapel. Neil recorded the chapel’s bells, as well as bells at five other churches, and fed the sounds into a computer.

    “It’s like a sculptor or potter taking a piece of clay and molding it,” he said.

    The bell sounds will play through speakers as background to live musicians in the SMU Chamber Singers and Concert Choir, directed by Patrick O’Shea; Women’s Choir, directed by Lindsy O’Shea; and a percussion and a brass quintet coached by Eric Heukeshoven.

    Neil was careful to keep the integrity and distinction of the sound of each church’s bells.

    “In many ways, I’m showcasing the beauty of what’s already there,” said Neil, a 2008 McKnight Foundation visiting composer with the American Composers Forum. “That’s the challenge. I don’t want to destroy; I want to enhance.”

    The 20-minute “Oratoria” uses Polish, German, Irish and English poems from the 1500s and 1600s on the topics of time, change, war, love and death. Neil said he wants to awaken within Winonans a cultural history of music.

    O’Shea said the bells provide an atmospheric element.

    “I’ve never done anything quite like this,” he said. “It requires open minded listening. It will definitely stretch you, but I think there are a lot of fascinating things to hear if you have your ears open.”

    Heukeshoven said it’s been a challenge for the musicians, but one that is also rewarding.

    “Playing new music is always a little difficult,” Heukeshoven said. “You don’t have preconceived notions going in.”

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    Said Neil: “Sometimes things often look like mistakes or an intrusion, but it’s fate stepping in.”

    If you go

    WHAT: SMU Choirs concert featuring the world premiere of William Neil’s “Oratoria,” Patrick O’Shea’s “Due Sonetti di Petrarca,” Jake Runestad’s “I Will Lift Mine Eyes” and works by Pablo Casals and spirituals

    WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

    WHERE: Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels, 1155 W. Wabasha St.

    TICKETS: $10 or $5 for students and senior citizens, available at the SMU Box Office, (507) 457-1715 or athttp://www.pagetheatre.org“>www.pagetheatre.org.

    Hearing bells

    Saturday’s concert will feature bells from Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Central United Methodist Church, St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Campus Center.