By Linda Egenes
James Meredith, far left, is the founder and director of Sonos Handbell Ensemble.
James Meredith is not your typical classical musician. For one thing, he’s had a multifaceted career. As an accompanist, he is a musical partner with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and dramatic soprano Olivia Strapp. He is also the founding director of the celebrated Sonos Handbell Ensemble. Meredith dons a third hat as arranger and composer for the group—all while maintaining a roster of piano and vocal students, 10 of them gifted students from the Young Musicians program at UC Berkeley, where he is a faculty member. Fairfield audiences will have a chance to hear the ensemble perform at the Sondheim Center on Sunday, March 2.
A Gift for Synchrony
Meredith became the founding artistic director of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble in1990. "I knew from the start that I wanted it to be professional musicians playing classical music, with the tours and performances handled professionally," he said.
Since then Sonos has brought audiences to their feet twice on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show; given sold-out performances in multiple tours of the U.S., Asia, and Europe; and is widely acclaimed by music critics as the top handbell ensemble in the nation.
Playing the beautiful, flowing music of handbells is an exercise in synchronicity. Using over 56 bells, the 12 musicians of Sonos Handbell Ensemble work together to create the sound of one instrument. As Meredith says, "Instead of one pianist with ten fingers sitting at the piano, it’s as if you had ten pianists, each playing only one finger at a time, trying to play a Bach fugue."
Such synchronicity requires intense rehearsal. "It’s a collective effort. There’s a lot more group rehearsal than with other ensembles," notes Meredith. "You have to coalesce as a group. The individual ego has to get out of the way."
"I was never trained in composing—I never felt I could compose a fugue like Bach or a sonata like Beethoven," he says. "But after I started Sonos, the handbell ensemble, it was obvious that the kind of music I wanted to perform had not yet been created. Then we were asked to perform a contemporary piece at an important concert in Spokane, and I felt we had to jolt the handbell world out of its safe style. We didn’t have the money to pay anyone to compose a piece, so I said I’d write it."
Since then Meredith has become a published composer, riveting audiences with his handbell pieces performed by the Sonos Handbell Ensemble internationally and on several DVDs. He also arranges most of the music the group performs.
Giving Back to the Community
For 15 years Meredith has taught, coached, and accompanied vocal students with remarkable results—all have attended top music colleges and conservatories, many on scholarships. In his office, it’s late afternoon when Alisa knocks on Jim’s door. A tall girl for just 13, she’s part of the Young Musicians Program, which gives gifted high school and elementary school children whose families could never afford it the opportunity to study with professional musicians in the San Francisco Bay area.
"You seem quiet today," Meredith says. She nods and says she is tired. Like every good teacher, he notices things about his students. Then he sits down at his Mason & Hamlin, a grand piano sitting beside a Bechstein grand that he once hauled across the country in a trailer, and starts to play scales while Alisa sings. After warm-ups, he reads a summary of Clair de Lune, a French love-song by Gabriel Fauré, and starts to play.
Alisa opens her mouth and sings like a lark. It’s astonishing to hear such sophisticated music coming from a 13-year-old.
As the lesson progresses to an Italian song by Rossini, Meredith asks her to assess her own singing. She says her voice is not as clear today, and he reminds her of certain breathing techniques, explaining how a performance musician would address a problem like that. When he asks her what some of the French words mean so she can create the proper feeling, she’s right there with him.
At one point he stops to talk to her. "You’re talented. You can move people with your voice. You must know this. And how does that make you feel?" he asks.
"Good," the girl says and smiles. She’s quiet and shy. Yet there is no doubt that at 13 she is already, thanks to Meredith, thinking of herself as a pro.
You can listen to the music of Sonos Handbell Ensemble, conducted by James Meredith, at sonos.org. This article originally appeared in volume 9 of TM Magazine and is reprinted by permission.