For its 20th anniversary concert, the Raleigh Ringers returned to Stewart Theatre, on the campus of NC State University. It was the site of earlier Ringers programs, before the ensemble began to sell out larger halls, routinely. Stewart was not completely full this time, but the crowd made a lot of noise, showing its appreciation of artists who, over the years, have helped make the Ringers one of the very top ensembles of this kind in the country. (Indeed, I can think of only one other group that is its peer – the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, based in California but directed by an outstanding Tar Heel artist, James Meredith.)

There were lots of old Ringers on hand for the celebration – for such it was. Eleven founding members turned up, and 23 other vets were there, too – folks with solid service time in the group. These “plank holders” (the charter members) and other vets have reasons for the pride they surely feel, for this group didn’t leap fully formed from the head of Zeus or whatever. That said, however, this critic has been listening to the Ringers for a long, long time, and the group has always – from the very first – been exceptional. For sure, it’s not granny’s handbell group – or anything vaguely resembling what we had here, years ago, at the old Christ Church parish school (known today as Ravenscroft), in which then-little choir member Bernie Reeves, now publisher of Metro Magazine played middle C.

But we digress.

Stewart, with its raked seating, is a good place for handbells, for one can look down on all those padded tables and take in all that hardware – lots of hardware. There was other stuff on the stage, too – stuff that would be revealed as the program progressed.

The concert began with recorded music and the voice of the late Frosty Clark (of WPCE and contract recording fame – I mention this for the sake of folks who may not have known him). The “Entry of the Gladiators” (by Fučík, transcribed by William H. Griffin) served as an impressive and festive introduction, bringing to mind the gladiatorial struggles of this group to achieve fame, fortune, and respect. (They have been to Paris, and indeed they have otherwise arrived!)

Pieces old and new followed – works the Ringers have introduced and made popular here and wherever their travels have taken them. First-half selections included Arnold B. Sherman’s “Canticle,” William A. Payne’s “Passages” (a new piece, celebrating the big anniversary), the Benny Hill theme (arranged by former Ringer Kryn Krautheim), Karen Lakey Buckwalter’s “Psalm 42,” the Prelude in C Sharp minor by Old Stoneface (Rachmaninoff) (the prelude, transcribed by Douglas Floyd Smith), and Fred Gramann’s arrangement of “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Thou Almighty King”). In all of these, artistry and great spirit were present, equal measures, leavened along the way by humor and fun – these folks work like crazy, perhaps obsessively, but they always seem to be having a good time. And one reason for that is that their founding director, David M. Harris, is at once so brilliant at this game and so down to earth in his frequent remarks (rendered, he reminded us, to cover for the group while the players set up for the next piece…).

There were many artistic highlights, too. It’s one thing to create long flowing lines from a percussion instrument like, say, a piano (which is percussive because the strings are struck), but it’s quite another thing for 13 or 15 or even 17 bell ringers, each with at least one and often many more bells to deal with, to create the impression of an immaculately sung melodic line such as a fine singer can create on a great big breath of air. Toss in the sculpted dynamics these artists achieve, their precision in attacks and releases, and their astonishing, breath-taking dexterity – well, you may begin to get the idea, but you probably won’t believe any of this without going to hear ‘em for yourself!

For this listener, the highlight of the first half was the Psalm setting, but there were many other fine moments and, in addition, there were remarks and reminiscences by senior vets Susan Grigg and Sherry Graham and from current president Bob Auchter, too.

Part two brought a dazzling “Csárdás” (Monti, arranged by Toshikazu Yoshida) and the “Hymn [or Ode] to Joy,” that song of universal brotherhood (and sisterhood) taken from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (arr. Edward Hodges and Michael R. Keller).

Along the way, those old-time Ringers were mustered on stage for photos, and – later – board member Waltye Rasulala spoke of her pride in the group, recounting their receipt of the Raleigh Medal of Arts.

Did we mention the roadies and the flames and the strobe and the lava lamp?

Much as this old classical geezer hates to admit it, the Ringer’s “Rockin’” numbers – on this occasion, “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Wizards in Winter” (by, respectively, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, and the Trans-Siberians) – may be among the group’s most popular – if not lasting – contributions. They play these things with all the attention to detail that marked their most serious numbers, which is to say, brilliantly.

It was a generous and generously-filled program, but the audience wouldn’t let them go, so “Stars and Stripes Forever” (hear on their website) was dusted off, and the show ended with “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” It was good to hear these Ringers classics again, and the group was as fresh as at the outset, more than two hours previously. As Rasulala said during her anniversary remarks, here’s hoping that this group will simply “ring on!”

PS After years of fielding requests for another holiday (Christmas) CD, it has just been released. It includes “Wizards in Winter.” The timing’s not right for such fare, however – so we’ll defer a review of it till colder temperatures return. But if you don’t want to wait, visit the Ringers’ website and you can hear it – and purchase it – now!

PSS It’s worth noting that three members of the Ringers have had perfect attendance, if you please – for 20 years.