John Burnett, Executive Manager
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 12, 2000
San Anselmo company a striking success
San Anselmo, California, June 12, 2000
"Our choir was moved to tears and couldn't sing!"
That was the reaction to some bells a Seattle church recently acquired with the help of a Marin business development firm.
Expanding Edge LLC primarily helps Russian inventors and entrepreneurs to connect with US power companies, wine importers, agricultural concerns, and so forth. But it got into the bell business in 1998 when St. Nicholas Orthodox Church on San Anselmos Ross Avenue asked it to help bring the first set of Russian bells to this country in nearly a century. Now, in addition to other projects, it does substantial business as "Blagovest Bells". ("Blagovest" is Russian for "good news" and is the name of the first bell that announces the church services.)
"My business partner and I both attend church at St. Nicholas," explains John Burnett, Executive Manager of the firm. "Father Stephan (Meholick, pastor of the church) has been into bells for years hes actually something of an expert. He got really excited when he heard Russia was making bells again. So he found some donors, we worked out the connections, and now St. Nicholas has six new Russian bells to go with the American one it already had you can hear them from time to time if youre in the neighborhood."
The bells of St. Nicholas range from about 9 to 27 inches in diameter, and from 18 to 528 lbs. The larger ones have Russian icons and scripture verses on them, just like the great historical bells of Russia.
"We think of bells as the voice of the earth, and the earth plays an important place in our worship in a lot of different ways," says Fr. Meholick, a well-known figure in San Anselmos community gardening scene. Katherine Klar, a UC Berkeley Celtic Studies professor who is one of St. Nicholas most avid bell ringers, agrees: "Were always singing, Let the heavens be glad, let the earth rejoice! Nothing accomplishes that quite like a good set of Russian bells."
The firm is well positioned to do business with Russia. Its General Manager, Mark Galperin, a nuclear physicist by training, became Moscows biggest Xerox dealer during Russias Perestroika era.
"We can import bells of up to 30 tons from several firms," says Galperin, "but we rely mainly on Pyatkov & Co., a foundry in the Ural Mountains, Vera LLC of Voronezh, and ODMK, an offshoot of ZIL, the former Soviet automobile company. They make excellent bells some say they sound better even than the historic ones at Holy Trinity Cathedral on Green Street in San Francisco." The Green Street bells were dramatically stolen and mysteriously returned last year, probably as a result of national and international news coverage partly engineered by the Blagovest firm..
It may have been a long time since bells were made or even heard in most of Russia, but this is not the first time Californians have heard them. The foundry that cast those of St. Nicholas cast the bells and cannons used at Fort Ross, over 200 years ago. And Admiral Berings cannons were made there as well though of course a different company occupied the site back then.
Bell making reached unsurpassed heights in Russia by the beginning of the 20th century, when an estimated 4 million pounds of bronze sang from the towers of Moscow alone. And thats not even counting the quarter-million pound "Tsar Bell", damaged in a fire in the 1700's before it could be raised from its casting pit. Now a well-known Kremlin tourist attraction, the great cracked bell was big enough even to serve for a while as a chapel.
But the Revolution nearly put an end to Russias bell culture overnight. During the 20s and 30s, tens of thousands of bells were thrown out of towers and melted down to make tractors, statues of Lenin, and bullets. Only with Perestroika could Russia's great bell-making and bell-playing traditions to emerge again and ironically, some of those statues are ending up as bells.
Russian bells are different than those of Europe, Burnett says. "They have a more organic tuning, and they dont swing you pull on their tongues to make them sing. So the players can develop all kinds of rhythms instead of just bong-bong, bong-bong. Theyre like talking drums, and improvisation is a must! We have a handbook from one monastery that goes on for 53 pages about what to do on different occasions."
Individual virtuosity is encouraged. "Its a living art, and a living tradition. Each tower has its own master, and each player, a personal touch."
As it happens, most of St. Nicholas bell-players are women. "Everybody loves bells," comments Professor Klar. "Wars begin with a shot, but they always end with the ringing of bells."
Apparently, even in Marin, thats true of cold wars as well.
(Blagovests website, one of the internets largest resources on bells and bell-ringing, is http://www.russianbells.com.)