The Raleigh Ringers end their season every year with their annual holiday concert, a two-hour extravaganza of ringing, percussion, light shows, and unique arrangements of holiday and classical tunes, utilizing somewhere in the neighborhood of 360 to 380 bells. This year’s handbell concert carried on the upbeat, family-friendly tradition with both familiar and more rarely played works, ranging from Bach to Bon Jovi. Following the release of their DVD/Blu-ray release A December Tradition, the Raleigh Ringers chose new works and also revived old arrangements that had not been performed lately to appease an audience of enthusiastic fans, hungry for handbells.

Opening for the Raleigh Ringers in the lobby, the Lighthouse Club Bell Choir, sponsored by Monarch NC [] performed a selection of Christmas carols on their own handbells for thirty minutes. This choir is made up of people with behavioral and intellectual disabilities from the private nonprofit Monarch organization, based in Albemarle. The choir plays on one octave of colored Orff bells, signaled to play by their director holding up colored cards. Thus they played chords supporting recordings of “Silver Bells,” “Joy to the World,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Ave Maria.” This group performs as a community service for community and civic groups, for the elderly and medically frail, and for people in two of the area’s Alzheimer’s units. Their work is amazing, and it was both inspiring and cheering to see how well they performed.

Promptly at 4:08 p.m., the concert began, complete with fog and dramatic lighting. The choir started with J.S. Bach’s “Alleluia,” transcribed by Martha Lynn Thompson, featuring musical quotes of “We Three Kings” and “Farandole.” Unfortunately this work was a little garbled and it was difficult to distinguish the melodies, which could have been the result of a complicated arrangement or a shaky start by the players. In any case, there was a direct segue into one of the choir’s most popular holiday pieces, “Wizards in Winter.” Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra made this famous, and ever-creative arranger Hart Morris arranged it specifically for the Ringers. The Ringers’ elaborate set and stage lighting were timed to flash with the music during this piece, albeit a little randomly. The effect, however, was not lost.

Several lesser-known pieces followed, including the French carol “Masters in this Hall” arranged by Arnold B. Sherman, John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder as I Wander” arranged by Karen Lakey Buckwalter, and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, as arranged by ringer Keith Burt. The first two of these were very sonorous, featuring athletic bass parts and providing nice adaptations of the traditional tunes. Burt’s arrangement is unique, extracting a complex and contrapuntal handbell part from the equally complex piano work. It sounded like the players struggled a little, and it was hard to hear all the layers, but it is an impressive work nonetheless.

Ending the first half were William H. Griffin’s arrangement of Three Selections from the Nutcracker (“Marche,” “Spanish Dance,” and “Dance of the Reed Flutes” originally from Tchaikovsky’s ballet), a Morris arrangement of Bill Hayes and Jay Johnson’s “Blue Christmas,” and Cathy Mokleburst’s arrangement of “Sing We Now of Christmas.” The Nutcracker was spot-on and very well-played, despite a scary moment when one of the bells lost a handle, came free, and knocked a music stand to the stage all in one fell swoop. A more planned entertainment occurred in “Blue Christmas,” when the lowest-pitch bell ringers chided the highest-pitched bell ringers for taking too long because “treble is easy.” The treble bell ringers challenged the bass bell ringers to trade places, which they did, leaving the strongest men ringing the tiniest bells and the tiniest women hefting the largest bells. Some of the extra ringers acted as judges during the performance, scoring the others on their work. “Sing We Now of Christmas” was a wonderful, spirited piece to cap the first half, beginning with contemplative random ringing of bells and timbre changes with the melody played on a different set of bells from the harmony, and ending with Celtic hand drums and fast, lilting rhythms.

After intermission, the Raleigh Ringers’ quintessential strobe lights and flashing colors marked the entrance of the “Rockin’ Raleigh Ringers,” who came onstage to give a special performance of “Hold the Line” and “Living on a Prayer.” Their tie-dyed T-shirts, colorful wigs, and headbanging could not change the fact that they were playing handbells, but this certainly gave a fun twist to the concert. (The order of the program was much better this way than the holiday concert last year, when the rock set was listed as an encore and made the concert feel almost unbearably long.) Next was Cynthia Dobrinski’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas,” with – spoiler alert! – guest soloist Greg Fishel, introduced by Ringer Director David M. Harris  as the North Carolina weatherman who “gets excited about snow.” Fishel entered with his tuba, accompanied by “roadies” and did a hilarious skit about his “performance contract.”

The last three pieces were all very impressive, featuring precise and energetic layering of parts. William Payn’s “Legends” reflected on several recently-deceased handbell virtuosos, while “Good King Joy,” another Morris arrangement of a Trans-Siberian Orchestra tune, lifted the reflective mood until it directly segued to the late Betty Garee’s gorgeous arrangement of “Stille Nacht.” Audience members were encouraged to light electric candles during the second verse as a tradition of the holiday concert, but everyone was so excited for this that most of the candles had already been lit during the first verse. During the second verse, the lights dimmed until all that was left were the candles and the luminaries placed in the choir seats. The audience spontaneously began humming, lending the work an especially reverent and moving finish as it slowly quieted, ending in complete silence.

The Raleigh Ringers holiday concert would not be complete without one or two encores; the Sunday matinee performance closed with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12-24,” complete with flute and cello soloists, and Griffin’s “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker, with Fishel and a friend performing as the Dancing Russians.

Laughs, eye rolls, and applause were abundant in this nearly-sold-out performance and, as always, it was a pleasure to be a part of it. There is one more chance to listen – Monday, December 16, at 7:30 p.m. – before the Ringers’ season comes to a close. For details, see the sidebar.

The Ringers’ Christmas special will play on UNC-TV on Thursday, December 18, at 10 p.m., Christmas Eve at 8 p.m., and Christmas Day at 11 a.m.