Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

An unusual pairing, a joyous concert

When it was all over, the bus driver said it best.

When it was all over, the bus driver said it best.

Henry Hill, 57, was on his day off, truly a busman's holiday, but came to the Kimmel Center to see the Joybells - a handbell choir of 12 men and woman with Down Syndrome - perform a Christmas concert with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

People who can't read music playing with graduates of Curtis and Julliard.

"Two different cultures blended as one," said Hill, who normally drives the Joybells, although at the moment the bus is broken. "They blended their music and it sounded magical. Nothing here but unconditional love. I'm so warm right now I don't even need my longjohns going home."

This collaboration was the first ever between a handbell choir of disabled adults and a world-class orchestra, according to those involved, and it was three years in the making.

The Joybells began attending open rehearsals of the chamber orchestra and developed a relationship with its director, Dirk Brosse, who also attended Joybell performances to assess their ability.

He then spent months writing the arrangements - highlighting the viruosity of chamber musicians during intros and interludes, shining a light on the Joybells in melodies.

The groups assembled in September for the first time to rehearse together and record a CD.

Orchestra members showed up thinking it was just another gig. "Christmas music in September?" bass player Miles Davis thought. "I'm not ready for this."

He ended up in tears, as did many other orchestra members.

"I was totally caught up in it," said Davis. "It makes you question your assumptions about what ability means and what appreciation means."

"It was probably one of the finest performances in all of our lives," said Brosse, the conductor, who also shed tears that day. "The Joybells showed such joy and enthusiasm on stage, with such positive energy that it pushed the orchestra and myself to embrace our musicmaking through their eyes."

The Joybells are from Melmark, a community that provides a range of services to disabled adults and children on 100 acres of gorgeous land in Newtown Square. Half of those receiving help live there, the others attend day programs.

The property was purchased for $160,000 in 1966 by Paul and Mildred Krentel after the birth of their daughter with Down Syndrome. This was an era of institutionalization, and rather than send their daughter away, they started their own home in Delaware County for children like her.

In 1970, Mildred bought toy bells and started a bell choir for the children. She wrote out simple melodies, and pointed at each child when it was time to ring a bell. They children radiated such joy she named them the Joybells.

More than 40 years later, the concept is the same, though much more sophisticated, adding in harmonies and chords. The 12 Joybells line up in a row, modeling a piano keyboard, each member playing multiple bells across five octives.

The Joybells - now adults ages 25 to 50, half of whom grew up at Melmark - still rely cues from directors Sue Graves and Catie Parker.

At one point Sunday, during Joy to the World, Graves, who has been director for 24 years, resembled a basketball player making a no-look pass - her arms were stretched to her left, using sign language to signal choir members on that side, but giving a head nod to Christian White, to her right, signaling him to stop ringing a chime.

September's magic with the orchestra was recaptured Sunday, if not surpassed, at the Kimmel. With Brosse away in Belgium, the chamber orchestra was led by guest conductor Gary White in two free shows, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m, held in the large open lobby known as Commonwealth Plaza.

In the morning, Priscilla Hollerback, 50, from Hatboro, watched from a balcony, and kept wiping away her tears. After Silent Night, she whispered, "My god, so beautiful."

In the afternoon, Diane Dooley, 53, closed her eyes and was swept away. "I am loving it," she said. "It's completely touching my heart."

People stood on tiptoes to see. Many began to tap the air with their fingers as if they were ringing bells.

The Joybells were joyous. The five women - Valerie Barksdale, Lisa Burgwald, Megan Penman, and Sara Waldman, and Meg Garner - each did a little curtsy when introduced, and between numbers hugged and high-fived one another they were so happy.

Ronnie Grass was a rock at the end of the table, ringing the biggest brass bells, each as heavy as a bowling ball.

"I play a lot of heavy bells because of my muscle," he explained.

After the final song in the morning performance, as the bus driver said, there was a common glow, a warmth in the Kimmel lobby, a recognition that something wonderful had just happened.

"I loved it," said Mark Deschodt, a Joybell. "I was happy."

Was it hard?


Graves, the director, interrupted.

"Do not quote him on that!"

After the second concert, the Joybells didn't have time to linger for hugs, pictures and even a few autographs as they had in the morning. They headed off to New York, where they were to do a taping this morning for the Today Show, to air on Christmas.

"To me it's so exciting to give them an opportunity to shine," said Graves, "to focus on their ability and not their disability. Every life has meaning and purpose and it's a message that needs to be heard."