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Handbell Choir to tour in China

| Thursday, October 12, 2017

Five years ago, Jonathan Noble, director of Notre Dame’s Beijing Global Gateway, heard the Notre Dame Handbell Choir perform before a group of senior Chinese education officials. With plans underway to open a new location, Noble decided the handbells would play at its dedication, Karen Schneider-Kirner, director of the Handbell Choir, said. This weekend, 14 members of the Handbell Choir will travel to Beijing to play for the long-anticipated dedication, followed by a week of concerts before Chinese audiences.

“For the staff that works there, it’s a big deal to highlight why they’re there,” Schneider-Kirner said. “They want to introduce more Chinese students to Notre Dame, but also provide a space where American students can go and learn more about Chinese business practices or get involved in other universities over China.”

The new center is located in Genesis Beijing, a state-of-the-art building offering filtered air and access to cultural events, lectures and an art museum. After the Gateway’s dedication ceremony, the choir will play several more concerts in Beijing before traveling to Chengdu.

“The bells originated in China. It’s one of the oldest musical instruments we have, but Chinese people in general know nothing about what we know as a handbell choir today, with the smaller brass bells playing different tunes and intricate patterns,” Schneider-Kirner said. “It will be something very unique to the people we’ll be playing for.”

In addition to the cultural connection, the bells offer a means of avoiding the censorship of China’s atheist government, Schneider-Kirner said.

“With the bells, it doesn’t involve lyrics. As more of a sacred music group, I think we can translate better since China overall is a pretty atheistic country,” she added.

The Handbell Choir will, however, be able to participate in Catholic services at South Cathedral in Beijing and Pinganqiao Cathedral in Chengdu.

“This is a pretty groundbreaking trip because we’re also doing things within the Catholic Church,” Schneider-Kirner said. “About a year ago, a Fr. Matthew, the rector of South Cathedral in Beijing, came to meet with [University president] Fr. John [Jenkins] as a way to open up doors for collaboration. He’ll be saying a Mass with us and then we’ll be doing a concert at the Cathedral for a hundred seminarians.”

The Handbell Choir will play several more concerts in and near Beijing over the next few days: three at an international school, one in collaboration with a Chinese instrument orchestra at Peking University and one on the Great Wall.

“We’re just stuffing bells in our backpacks and bringing portable music stands,” Schneider-Kirner said. “Apparently it’s nothing we can ask permission for; we’re just going to do it and see what happens.”

After a few days in Beijing, the choir will fly to Chengdu, where they will play two more concerts in collaboration with Szechuan University.

“We’ll combine with different groups: There’s a Chinese instrument orchestra, a 25-member erhu orchestra, a 50-member choir and a symphony orchestra from the school,” Schneider-Kirner said. “Some of these pieces we’re doing together; in order to bridge the gap, I’ve arranged a bunch of traditional Chinese music pieces that I think will work well on the bells, just so we’re not bringing completely unfamiliar music.” 

About one third of the music the choir will play on the trip is traditional Chinese music, while the other two thirds are drawn from their usual repertoire, Schneider-Kirner said. The choir will finish their tour playing at a Mass and concert at Pinganqiao Cathedral in Chengdu and sharing a dinner with the parents of a former choir member. Schneider-Kirner explained that the purpose of the trip is to convey a message of welcome from Notre Dame to the students at the various universities they will perform at and to bridge the cultural gap.

“We thought it would be a great opportunity … to do things within the Catholic church, which is pretty phenomenal. I don’t know if any other Notre Dame groups, particularly religiously affiliated, have ever done anything in China. It’s definitely groundbreaking in that way,” Schneider-Kirner said. “Primarily, it’s a great opportunity to promote peace and understanding and building bridges with our sisters and brothers in Asia.”

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