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In Newton, a chance to chime in

Luca Antonucci may be known for playing trumpet with his school jazz band, but a few years ago the Watertown teen took up a more unusual instrument -- one that weighs nearly seven tons.

Most Sunday mornings he can be found high in the tower of the First Unitarian Society church in Newton playing the church bells. Working long wooden levers to ring the massive bronze bells, he fills the neighborhood with both the melodies of simple hymns as well as complex classical works like Sibelius' "Finlandia."

"It's so much fun to watch Luca play. He's this wiry 14-year-old boy up in the tower, all legs and arms in motion," said First Unitarian Society member Gayle Smalley of Newton.

The next two Tuesdays, visitors will not get to see Antonucci in action, but they will hear him and fellow chimer Robert Feldman of Framingham perform a chime concert that will ring out through all of West Newton Square. All are invited to listen from the church lawn.

"I really like this image of a quiet summer night with people on their blankets listening to the bells. It seems like it speaks to a simpler time," said Smalley, who organized the event with the music committee.

Though a handful of churches in the Boston area do hold regular chime concerts, this is the First Unitarian Society's first in recent memory. Antonucci's growing talent and long-time chimer Feldman's rapid virtuosic playing inspired the event.

Antonucci's interest came spontaneously. "I just walked up into the chime tower one day when the bells were ringing and another member, Allan Hartman, was up there and he showed me how to play them," said Antonucci.

"It's pretty simple, though it helped that I could read music," he added. "And I just tend to stick with things, so I kept playing them. I like that you can go up there on a Sunday and bang away and nobody knows who you are."

He's not the only one fascinated with the church's 11-bell "chime." Eight church members take turns playing, including Antonucci's pianist parents, Lois Shapiro, who performs with the acclaimed Wellesley-based Triple Helix Piano Trio, and Paul Antonucci.

"It's such a different experience than playing the piano. It's as if you're setting the whole world in vibration," said Shapiro. "And it's exhausting. It's like working out on a Nautilus."

Feldman began chiming in 1965 while studying at Cornell University, which is a hotbed for bell ringing. (They hold three chime concerts per day, and are known to ring out the "Mickey Mouse March" on graduation day.)

Feldman does not worship with the Society, but since personal bell towers are none too common, he had happily played there since moving to Massachusetts in 2000.

"I just like towers. I don't think I would be so excited if chimes were all played in basements," he said. "I also like the captive audience. When you play, they listen."

When you practice, they also listen, which makes rehearsing somewhat interesting for beginners.

"Before you play, you have that lump in your throat like you're about to give a speech, because you know everyone can hear you," said Smalley, who started chiming last winter. "Personally, I try to never practice when there's yoga or meditation going on in the building."

So far, the neighbors haven't complained. Some have sent letters of gratitude.

"I can hear them in my office," said Newton court clerk-magistrate Bill McEvoy. "They're pleasant. I find them peaceful. It harks back to a day when I was younger and used to hear more church bells."

"Even just a scale can sound very cool, and each bell is engraved with a message, like 'I sing abroad of the joy at the heart of the world,' " Smalley said. "So, it's pretty amazing to ring them and know you're sending that message when you do."

Chime concert, about 7:30-8:30 p.m. Aug. 14 and Aug. 21 at First Unitarian Society, 1326 Washington St., Newton. Free. Bring lawn chairs or blankets. Rain location in the church sanctuary. Call 617-527-3203.

THEY FEEL GOOD: James Brown, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke -- the party that these R&B and soul greats started never stops when Chicken Slacks takes the stage. This Boston-based septet known for its sassy horns and shaking rhythm section performs a free concert of soul and funk hits tonight as part of Watertown's summer concert series in Saltonstall Park.

But don't worry, you don't have to wear the mysterious chicken slacks.

Drummer Justin Berthiaume explains the band's name hails from some misheard Sam Cooke lyrics. What they heard? "He's dancing with the chicken slacks." What Cooke wrote? "He's dancing with the chick in slacks."

Chicken Slacks, 6:30-8 p.m. tonight at Saltonstall Park, 149 Main St., Watertown. Rain location: Watertown Public Library. Free. Picnics welcome. Call 617-972-6431 day of concert after 4 p.m. OPERA SHORT AND SWEET: Opera del West is putting on two semi-staged, one-act opera comedies aimed right at opera-phobes. They're short, they're funny, they have a little audience participation, and everyone will be able to understand because the lyrics will be shown in English super-titles.

Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" will star the center's executive director, David Lavalley, as a man who has just died. All his relatives gather around him thinking they'll inherit his money, but an unpleasant surprise awaits them.

Then in "A Game of Chance," a jazzy modern opera by New York composer Seymour Barab, three women get their wishes, but they just may not be too happy with them in the end.

"Last year, we did opera scenes. This year we're doing one-acts. Next year, we hope to mount a fully staged full-length production," said Eve Budnick of Wayland, who founded the opera company with soprano Rebecca Grimes of Northborough last summer. In the meantime, watch for their return to TCAN with a children's opera program in September.

Opera del West, 8 p.m. at TCAN, 14 Summer St., Natick. Tickets: $18; students/seniors $17. Call 508-647-0097 or visit natickarts.org.

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