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We're blessed with one of our nation's finest handbell ensembles right here in the capital. The Raleigh Ringers gave the first of three holiday concerts this afternoon. Another is at 7:30 p.m. tonight, in Meymandi Concert Hall. The third is in the same venue tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. If you're free and you've never heard them, you owe it to yourself to go. If you have other plans, you might want to change them and go hear them instead. Yes, they're that good. Go! ....
For their 29th holiday program – this one as noted offered three times in two incredibly busy days – the Raleigh Ringers departed somewhat from their norm in featuring to a large extent the work of a single master handbell arranger and composer, in this case the immensely gifted and talented Hart Morris, the RR's Composer Laureate and the person responsible for a significant portion of the Ringers' most popular and oft'-heard pieces. Thus audiences were treated to a generous program that consisted of a total of eight works set by Morris, in most of which he also played various percussion instruments and one of which – "Good King Joy" – he himself led. (He also appeared – briefly – as the Grinch.)
The Ringers – 18 in number, including founding director David Harris – have – as noted – become one of America's leading organizations of this type, perhaps only equaled by the West Coast group known as Sonos (which is, ironically, directed by a native of New Bern, NC, a fact that suggests there may be something in the handbell water, here in the Tar Heel State.) Membership in the Ringers involves a considerable commitment, as they spend a good bit of time on the road, keeping a schedule that at once extends their reach literally all over and concurrently represents Raleigh music and culture of a very special variety everywhere they go.
This program, presented on a staged decked out in festive colors, began with a custom Hart Morris intro leading into a lovely version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" that set the mood admirably. The first half ranged from a snippet from Nutcracker to traditional carols – the "Coventry Carol" was exceptional – and less familiar pieces that proved as compelling as the chestnuts – "Ring Out, Solstice Bells" and "Them Basses" (referring to the biggest bells, variously shaken or struck, to contort a James Bond phrase). A special moment came in a moving tribute to the late Dwight Robinett, long-time Ringers recording engineer and holiday cab driver, whose death last July is being mourned by many area music organizations. (Click here for details of a memorial gathering next month.) The Ringers' rendition of "It Came upon the Midnight Clear" was a truly serene tribute, one that in turn produced in collective admiration an apparently stunned reflective silence.
Part one ended with one of the Ringers' popular rock numbers, this time Foreigner's "Feels like the First Time," given with decked-out handbell players, a leader sporting a shirt of flames, and a Grinch-colored lava lamp off to the side. And a good time was had by all….
Part two embraced Hart Morris' richly varied, multi-faceted work in all its resplendent radiance, a significant subset of which was from the repertory of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who played in Raleigh on Dec. 12 as part of a tour that dwarfs even the Ringers' travels. These pieces included "Beethoven" (which in turn really does include [some] hints of Beethoven) and the aforementioned "Good King Joy" (in turn an amalgam of "Good King Wenceslas" and "Joy to the World'), but a highlight of the extended set turned out to be a medley of Latin carols that featured stellar guest guitarist Ed Stephenson in a too-brief cameo appearance; the songs, all familiar by ear if not by name, were "Campana sobre Campana" (appropriately, "Bells over Bells"), "A la Media Noche" ("At Midnight"), "El Rorro" ("The Baby"), and "Chiquirriquitin" ("Poor little Baby Boy"). Along the way there were many remarkable things – a "Manger Lullaby" and a "West Indies Carol" – but the dazzler of this half had to be a new (2017) arrangement by Morris of "The 12 Days" that morphed into "The Bell Daze of Christmas" and that in turn drew into its technical vortex hints of all kinds of stuff that one had to be present fully to savor. This is definitely a challenging piece, even for seasoned vets (of the season…) like this RR bunch and even so it seemed ever so much on the verge of veering out of control on more than one occasion, hard as that might be for RR fans who are reading this to imagine. (This is for certain a piece not to be tried at home or with your typical one-month-a-year handbell choir at church….)
ncidentally, Harris really knows his stuff. He keeps up 'tween-numbers banter while the players regroup, and he leads everything from memory, too. And by the way, the on-stage display reminds this scribe of a long-ago visit to Harry Winston's jewelry store, in New York – minus the guards watching customers every second…. Has there ever been assembled in one place such an array of handbells as are on view – and in use – here?
At the end there was the typical uproar following "Silent Night," so two encores ensued – "Wizards in Winter" (again, dazzling) and "Christmas Eve, Sarajevo, 12/24" (with cello intro – somber and reflective).
Readers have one more shot at this show, today (Sunday), Dec. 16. See the sidebar and hie thee there!