February 18, 2021
The Orchestra's New Bells: A Friendship Cast in Musical Form
On a recent weekday morning at Orchestra Hall, two friends stood onstage, masked and socially-distanced, to welcome officially the two newest additions to the Minnesota Orchestra: two large church bells, tuned to play the pitches C and G, custom-cast for the Orchestra by the world-renowned Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands. The rich, echoing sounds of these two bells—the first of their kind ever owned by the Orchestra—will ring out in the Hall for decades to come at a crucial moment in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, among other works.
One of those two friends is familiar to regular Orchestra Hall audiences: Brian Mount, the Orchestra’s principal percussionist, is typically seen at the back of the stage playing a near-endless variety of drums, cymbals, mallet instruments and more. The other, Gary Cohen, is an unlikely presence onstage, having never played in a musical ensemble. He is a Professor Emeritus of History, retired from the University of Minnesota in 2017, who has been a Minnesota Orchestra subscriber since arriving in the state in 2001. His generous financial gift to the Orchestra has facilitated the purchase of these two bells, with more to come in future seasons.
Gary Cohen with the Minnesota Orchestra’s two new church bells.
Mount and Cohen became friends several years ago after meeting in the Orchestra Hall lobby prior to a performance. Mount frequently visits the lobby before concerts to get to know audience members, but he quickly realized that Cohen’s lines of conversation were far from ordinary. “Gary is unusual in that right away he started talking to me about percussion gear, and asking questions about how I’m going to approach a particular piece,” said Mount. “Afterward he’d send me videos and links of performances by other orchestras, and soon I realized that he really knows what he’s talking about.”
Cohen’s musical knowledge comes not from performing, but rather from a lifetime of listening to orchestras, including concerts in Los Angeles while he was in high school and college, performances on the East Coast during his graduate studies, and concerts of top European orchestras during his research visits to Austria and the Czech Republic—his two areas of expertise as a historian. In addition, while he was a professor and director of the Center for Austrian Studies at the University of Minnesota, his research center occasionally organized programs jointly with the University’s School of Music.
“I did not play an instrument, to my regret,” Cohen said, “but I’ve got a historian’s memory.”
Where are the bells?
Over years of musical conversations between Mount and Cohen, one topic surfaced several times: performance practices related to the instrument popularly known as the church bell—the largest type of bell called for in standard orchestral repertoire. “I got to noticing that when a score called for bells, Brian would often use chimes or an electronic synthesizer,” Cohen noted. For instance, he explained: “The last time the Orchestra played Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, I knew that the score called for a bell part near the end of the first movement, to be played softly to accompany a march theme. One of Brian’s colleagues played it on a synthesizer, and it sounded like the Big Ben in London, with a lot of deep resonance. It sounded very artificial, and that really caught my attention. And I think I gave Brian a hard time about that.”
“Over the years, we really talked a lot about bells,” said Mount. “I told Gary about my anxiety that I get every time a piece like Symphonie fantastique comes up. I have to try and figure out: what am I going to do to get this bell sound that needs to sound like church bells? There aren’t that many options. I have a set of sampled synthesizer bells that I got from the Metropolitan Opera, but they’re only sampled bells.”
These conversations with Mount got Cohen’s creative wheels turning. “I had seen videos online of other orchestras playing some of the same repertoire, and some had sets of actual bells,” Cohen said. “I was making annual gifts to the Orchestra’s general fund, and then after I retired I realized I could do more. I thought about how I can do something that I can enjoy actually hearing, so I asked Brian what it would take to acquire some bells.”
“When Gary brought this up, I was completely ecstatic,” said Mount, who has had bells on his wish list nearly since the time he joined the Orchestra in 1997. “Gary and I talked about how much he was able to give, and we took that number and figured out exactly which bells we could get.” Since each church bell can only play one pitch, and Western music uses 12 different pitches, the priority was to purchase first the bells which are used frequently and prominently in major orchestral repertoire.
“Berlioz bells” come first
Mount and Cohen combed through some of the best-known orchestral works to use bells: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain, several Mahler symphonies and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Of these, one work stood out to Mount, Cohen and the Orchestra’s artistic leaders. “Symphonie fantastique has a critical bell part,” said Mount—specifically for two bells, pitched at C and G, representing funeral rites in the climactic Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath movement. “It’s a huge part of that piece. And it’s played with regularity. So some orchestras only get those two bells, because those are just dramatically featured,” Mount noted.
“Brian and I agreed that the Berlioz was a must, and those bells would come first,” said Cohen. At the time of those initial discussions, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique had been scheduled to open the Orchestra’s season in September 2020—but since the Berlioz work calls for such a large ensemble, it will not be performed until it is safe for full orchestra concerts to resume.
Church bells in Orchestra Hall
With the plan in place, the Orchestra contracted the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands to custom-produce the bells. “They are famous in the music world,” Cohen explained. “If you go looking for the best orchestral bells or church bells, you end up with them.” After the long wait during the casting, the bells arrived at Orchestra Hall in two large crates in early 2021, and on February 5, the Orchestra’s stage crew unpacked the bells onstage with Cohen and Mount looking on with excitement. Cohen was the first to strike the new bells, followed by Mount, who played the instruments just as they will sound in the eventual performance of Symphonie fantastique.
Now that the first two bells have arrived, Mount has his eyes on a low E bell, which is used in Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. That instrument, too, will come to reality in a future season thanks to Cohen’s ongoing support. “I committed to a multi-year gift to acquire, hopefully, a couple of bells each year,” Cohen explained.
The friendship between Mount and Cohen is now manifest in musical form, with the acquisition of bells that will stand the test of time and will be enjoyed by audiences for decades to come—once, of course, the pandemic has passed and the Hall can again be full. At that day on the horizon, Cohen will enjoy the music from the back of the Hall, in balcony B, while Mount and his percussion section colleagues will be stationed at the back of the stage.
Although the bells won’t be used in every concert, their presence will be unmistakable when their featured moments arrive. “One thing about percussionists,” said Mount, “is that we don’t play as much as the violins, so when we have a note, we really focus on how that one note is going to sound. A violinist doesn’t have time to think in detail about every one of their 18,000 notes, and some nights I have seven notes or 50 notes. So I’m going to really think about those.” Thanks to the generosity of Gary Cohen, those thoughts of real church bells in Orchestra Hall have become a reality.