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It began like a little ripple from a tiny pebble tossed into a shallow pool. And besides, who'd ever heard of a professional handbell choir? So from humble beginnings at Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church, Dave Harris and, over time, more than 100 dedicated musicians built the Raleigh Ringers as one of the leading ensembles in our country, helping spark more ensembles here and there and giving rise to a considerable repertory of new music and stellar arrangements from around the world – literally.
And it's not just for Christmas, although the ensemble's holiday programs have been staples here since the very beginning. Critics took interest early, including folks at Spectator; CVNC has missed maybe three of the Christmas concerts over 20 years and covered many others plus audio recordings and DVDs.* So the 30th anniversary is a very big deal – even in the time of COVID. Their latest, premiered live on YouTube on a bright Sunday afternoon, was a combination of archival material, some fresh ensemble work from WRAL's recent Christmas parade broadcast – also a virtual affair, of course – and live (Zoom) intros by present and past members and guests. It all worked reasonably well, and along the way we were reminded of just how much the ensemble has become part and parcel of our artistic community plus what wonderful ambassadors of Raleigh and central NC these players have become.
The program itself began with a moving reading of the Trans-Siberian's "An Angel Returned" ("Kyrie among nations"), admirably setting the stage, as it were. Harris, wearing a Santa cap, welcomed viewers, somewhat atypically seated rather than pacing about, as is his custom. Among the highlights was a clip of "I Wonder as I Wander" showing how young these folks were 29 years ago, at what was then Peace College, but this, too, served as a reminder that for many RR artists, these gigs became lifelong commitments. And indeed the speakers who introduced the (filmed) performances reflected that – Angie Chiatello spoke of her 10 years as she reintroduced us to Whitechapel bells (in business since the 1740s) in a lovely reading of "Lo, How a Rose" (1994). There was a cut from Nutcracker – the "Danse Russe Trepak" – rendered with considerable ado, as has been sometimes the custom at RR events. These things are concerts, yes, and also shows – as Hart Morris' truly extravagant "Bell Daze of Christmas" (2018) – introduced by Lauren Housley – convincingly demonstrated. Alumnus Jay Carter spoke before "It Came upon a Midnight Clear," which at once reminded us of the sheer beauty of many of the arrangements – and of their frequent complexity. Other highlights included "Ring out, Solstice Bells" (arr. Linda Boatwright) and Parisian Fred Gramann's utter virtuosity, revisited in "Veni, veni Emmanuel" (with a visit from the arranger live, from Paris). The WRAL bit was a clip of "Sleigh Ride," introduced by Kristin Murphy, that stemmed from a socially-distanced session in November, the most recent musical ingredient in this lovely holiday cake. "Silent Night" closed out this program. 'Twas lovely.
Current RR president Allison Keisler thanked alumni members for their ongoing participation and also the many viewers who had tuned in, speaking of the many challenges 2020 has presented but anticipating positive outcomes as our global pandemic begins to wind down. Note was made also by Keisler and Harris of worldwide viewers – a very good thing for our little local group that grew and grew to become a leader in this very specialized art form. Bravo!
The show was something of a technical tour de force too, with relatively few glitches as the live and recorded bits were married up. It was produced by Derek Nance. There were some imbalances in volume levels here and there, and some of the pre-recorded concert excerpts seemed a bit distanced, but a quick revisit of the archived film reveals that one may easily manipulate volume controls to level everything out quite nicely. The show is well worth seeing if you missed it and worth revisiting if you did catch it "live."
Note that the Ringers' holiday special will be aired again by UNC-TV on the 19th and the 24-25th – click here for details.
For more information about the formation of the group, start with Susan Grigg's interview on YouTube, here. There are other reminiscences by RR pioneers online, too.
Readers who missed this extravaganza may see it online here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rp2KKlUVOYw – through the end of the month. It got over 2,000 views during the first airing, and as of this writing, over 8,000 have checked it out – more than would have been accommodated during the regular three-performance runs in Meymandi Concert Hall. Yep, there's hope for art, starting on the very day the first vaccines were shipped by Pfizer.
These things don't just happen, so please remember to support the groups – like the Ringers – you want to help survive and prosper so they will still be around to play for us after the pandemic becomes a footnote in history like the Spanish flu…. Donate online here https://rr.org/Store/Donations or send a check to: 8516 Sleepy Creek Drive, Raleigh, NC 27613.
A note on home systems for taking in online things like the Ringers…: Much to my other half's profound consternation – because she thinks I have more than enough toys already and am too old and decrepit to keep adding more – I have used the pandemic as an excuse significantly to enhance my den theatre system. We can watch these YouTube and Zoom streams on the big, high-res. TV, and we can hear the sound through our five-speaker surround system in super hi-fi. The result, WRT the Raleigh Ringers (which has always opted for state-of-the-art technology) was spectacularly good – and thanks to online archiving, we are at liberty to revisit this experience repeatedly. AND thanks to AVC software (which I described in the second half of this article at the outset of the COVID-19 blight), we were also able to download a DVD for preservation alongside the Ringers' other videos and CD recordings. Hooray for high tech!
*Enter "raleigh ringers" in CVNC's search engine to call up the numerous citations since 2001 – including several mentions of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, based on the West Coast – America's other leading professional group, one that is ironically led by a wonderful artist and friend who grew up in New Bern, demonstrating that there must be something in the water here in NC.