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Raleigh Ringers: Progressions. Raleigh Ringers, David M. Harris, cond. © 2019; TT 72:39; $15, from Raleigh Ringers, Inc.
Well, they've done it again. The Raleigh Ringers have been making excellent music since 1990, and the ensemble's new Progressions album celebrates that legacy with a presentation of all the aspects that make them uniquely what they have become; a fun-loving, polished (no pun intended), professional handbell choir. This ensemble is essential to Raleigh in a lot of ways - from coaching local youth and church handbell ensembles to annual holiday celebrations in Meymandi Concert Hall – the most important being the commissioning of over 130 new compositions for the handbell choir as a serious musical ensemble in its own right.
Progressions begins with the group I most often associate this ensemble with, due to the rock-and-roll Christmas set I remember hearing them play pretty much annually at Meymandi: the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In this case, it is "Beethoven," a track that references the composer's Scherzo from Symphony No. 9, arranged by Ringers' composer laureate Hart Morris. It is a short, fun nod to the ensemble's eclectic taste in music and love for interesting settings of traditional works. Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, is a similarly layered and clean work. It is much tamer, yet still just as energetic, this time arranged by Martha Lynn Thompson.
More reserved performances follow, in works such as the ethereal "Reverie," an original composition by Karen Lakey Buckwalter, and the third movement of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, S.1048, in another Morris setting. I appreciated the dedication and professionalism the group brought to these lovely works; the first sonorous and chordal, the second, played almost exclusively with mallets on the bells for precision and clarity of pitch. The respect for Bach's delicately crafted lines shows, and "Reverie" is equally dazzling in its lush harmonies.
Although I cringed when I first saw Leroy Anderson's "The Irish Washerwoman" listed on the liner – for absolutely petty reasons, having heard bad arrangements of it at far too many school band concerts – I was pleasantly surprised by the way this piece is given a very nice treatment by arranger Morris. The Ringers bring Percy Graingeresque liveliness to its myriad of key changes and use varied styles of bells and chimes to change timbres in truly effective ways, the most exquisite, in my opinion, being the chime bars used for bagpipe-sound drones with grace note entrances. Since this is an audio-only format, you miss out on the choreography; almost every performer in the Raleigh Ringers wields multiple pairs of bells, sets of mallets, and maybe even multiples of the same pitches of bells by different makers. The group fields anywhere from two to seven-and-a-half octaves (an octave being a set of twelve individual bells) of at least eleven types of bells. These include traditional bells, Silver Melody Bells, Shaker Chimes, MelodyWave instruments, Cymbells, and many other types the layperson would be hard-pressed to recognize upon seeing them in side-by-side comparison. Knowing all this, the fact that "The Irish Washerwoman" has more than four key changes (based on what I could discern purely by ear) is a true feat!
The only track I noticed struggling with timing because of the running lines between individuals was "Rondo del Espanol," composed by B. Wayne Bisbee. The piece lost significant tempo by the end of the piece. It's a cool tune, full of interesting Spanish-inspired rhythms and tonalities, but all that complexity makes some of the fleeter lines come off as a bit disjointed
"Resilience" and "Four Resonances," both composed by William A. Payn, are among the most effective on the album in terms of embracing the bells as their own, distinctive instrument family. They utilize grand shakes, harmonic peals, and carefully executed placement and dampening. You can hear every attack, but the precision of releases is just as impressive. Not originally composed for handbells, but arranged specifically for the Raleigh Ringers by Keith Burt, the Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, by Rachmaninoff is by far the most impressive piece on the album. It showcases a strong classical background and intense focus by all the performers. The work itself is an amalgam of rhythm, chords, and power, lending itself incredibly well to this ensemble, which reflects the homogenous timbre of the piano. The Ringers are able to come together to its perfection.
Other tracks on the album include "Them Basses," a lively march of Getty H. Huffine, arr. Andrew Balent, and set for handbells by William H. Griffin; "Hava Nageela," an Israeli folk song arr. Douglas Floyd Smith; "Be Still, My Soul," which references Sibelius' Finlandia, arr. Alex Guebert; and Morris' arrangement of the "Armed Forces Salute" medley and of Zez Confrey's "Dizzy Fingers," which is a calliope of a piece that exemplifies the impeccable unity this ensemble can achieve.
Finally, of course, there's the "bonus" track: Freddie Mercury and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," recorded during a live concert. The arranger in this case is Paul McKlveen, and the Raleigh Ringers were joined in concert by members of Virtuoso 2019, auditioned members selected to join the professional ensemble in odd-numbered years since 2013. Having seen the ensemble milk this piece for all its worth in a live concert before, I still enjoy hearing it but, again, it loses some of the visual comedy in audio-only form, and when you can hear the audience laughing at the Ringers' onstage antics, it can leave you feeling a little out of the loop. In any case, the passion, timing, and treatment are impeccable, and the use of chime bars, windchimes, and the occasional surprise are thoroughly enjoyable.
Progressions is an homage to the handbell choir, perhaps not organized chronologically but certainly documenting the evolution of the art form, from simple hymn settings to complex contemporary works; from a simple set of pitched bells to a collection of varied timbres and styles; from a couple of bells held by choir members during mass to professional, enthusiastic entertainment. The Raleigh Ringers continue to inspire and amaze and have even more unique offerings than are present on their latest release; but, overall, Progressions is a great in-depth look at the scope of its achievements.