The Raleigh Ringers, true pioneers in American handbell ringing, observes its 25th anniversary this year. Few if any groups have done more to advance the cause, as director David Harris explained to a virtually packed hall – Meymandi – during the first of two presentations of the group’s annual holiday concert. (The program will be repeated on the evening of Dec. 14, in the same venue.)

The key ingredients of the Ringers’ success are reflected in the breadth and depth of the ensemble’s offerings. It’s community based, as opposed to being hosted by a church or school. Its members are the most advanced players in the area, originally drawn from other groups. The repertory is both sacred and secular. They do festivals and workshops and training. And they commission new music to play and to publish, under their own Raleigh Ringers title, issued by Jeffers Handbell Supply. They also have an immense arsenal (for want of a better word) – a vast array of bells and other instruments that enable them to fill up whole stages with equipment and whole auditoria with sound ranging from the highest audible tones, rendered at barely perceptible dynamic levels, to venue-shaking low notes that would do the largest pipe organs proud. In short, these Ringers are really something. That they are based right here, in Raleigh, constitutes yet another feather in the Triangle’s artistic cap. Happy anniversary! And thanks – to the current crop of 18 players, and to the nearly 100 artists who, over the years, have served as Ringers. In addition to Harris, two of them have been there from the outset. And a vast number of the alumni were on hand for the gala concert presented on a warm and radiant Sunday afternoon. Bravo tutti, as someone said!

Heard bell choirs elsewhere? With all due respect, even the most substantial ones don’t hold a candle to the Ringers. It terms of sheer virtuosity, they probably can’t be beat (no pun intended). The precise co-ordination is astonishing at first glance, but it’s the rock-solid musicianship that lingers long after the concerts have ended, for these folks are artists in the best sense of the word, and in addition they project delight in their work that is downright infectious. CVNC has covered them extensively, and Spectator did so before the online journal’s formation, so we speak from long experience when we say the Ringers are simply the best in the business, doing what they do.

And they do lots more than just holiday concerts. Readers may see and hear them on the small screen on Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 25 at noon, when UNC-TV airs a richly-rewarding special. And they’ll be back in Raleigh on May 22 with an entirely different kind of program. Stay tuned.

This concert encompassed music composed or arranged by Hart Morris, Arnold Sherman, Fred Gramann, Sandra Eithun, Keith Burt, Cathy Moklebust, Toshikazu Yoshida, Cynthia Dobrinski, Michael R. Keller, and Betty Garee. Veterans of Ringers concerts will recognize some of these names and will most certainly have been familiar with most of the tunes, which ranged from “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Veni Veni, Emmanuel” to an excerpt from Nutcracker (the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” one of eight numbers from the ballet in the Ringers’ repertory) to “O Holy Night,” Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” and Zez Confrey’s “Dizzy Fingers.”

This year’s rock tune, debuted last week on local radio stations, was Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” arranged by Burt. Part two also included “Greensleeves” (in a particularly gorgeous setting by Mocklebust) and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” following which the ensemble tripled in size as alumni members come on stage (to heartfelt applause) for – what else? – “Silver Bells” and Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy.” The current crop prepared to wrap up with “God with Us for All Time,” a standard, as it were, for Ringers programs, followed by everyone playing “Silent Night.”

There were encores, both lifted from Trans Siberian repertory – “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” and “Wizards in Winter,” which come to think of it these fabulous musicians truly are.

One cannot not be “in the spirit” after hearing the Ringers. If you don’t already know that, you owe it to yourself to beg, borrow, barter, purloin, or otherwise latch onto a ticket for the second performance of this program, on the evening of Dec. 14. See the sidebar for details.