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Just suppose for a moment that your exposure to handbell ringing has been limited to performances by ad hoc groups of eight to ten amateur ringers doing arrangements of carols, hymns, and a few other familiar pieces. If such were the case, you would have been ill-prepared for the opening of the eighteenth Summer Concert Series by The Raleigh Ringers. Presented in Meymandi Hall, the group played under the leadership of Founding Director David M. Harris. According to the printed program, the players had at their disposal eight multi-octave sets of bells. A rough count would suggest over two hundred and fifty instruments.
The artistry of the ringers was evident from the opening work, “Extreme Fanfare,” composed for The Raleigh Ringers by Jason Graves. The second offering, the Waltz from Tchiakovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” rates special mention. Transcribed for bells by William H. Griffin, this familiar piece served as a demonstration of precision and timing. One could visualize a virtuoso sitting at a “bell keyboard” playing each instrument by the touch of a key.
In the course of the evening, the group played some fifteen numbers, each with features to recommend it. One particularly moving piece was a new one for the Ringers, “Thorncrown Chapel Portrait,” by Sondra K. Tucker. Although the title indicates a single portrait, the work evoked several views of the chapel from the composer’s past in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The huge low bells were especially challenging and effective here. Worthy of note was a piece by a member of the Ringers, Keith Burt. His transcription of Chopin’s “Tristesse,” from the Études, Op.10, constituted a most pleasing addition to the numerous realizations that work has enjoyed over the years.
Along with the “serious” pieces were those primarily for show. “Yakety Sax” and “Bugler’s Holiday” proved that, given enough imaginative thought and inventiveness, anything can be effectively adapted for handbells. “Malagueña” was a crowd pleaser. Here three of the male Ringers morphed into flamenco dancers, none of whom would pose much of a threat to any of the performers at the American Dance Festival.
There was something for everyone: grandiose visual effects were furnished at one juncture in the program. No image or costume was too wild or frightening for the group, each one trying to outdo the other in outrageousness. Harris himself was especially intimidating as a caveman-leader. Presented in this setting were the evening’s rock offerings, elaborate themes and variations on “Light My Fire.”
The Ringers rewarded their enthusiastic audience with popular encores, among which were the mandatory “Flight of the Bumblebee” of Rimsky-Korsakoff and Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”