“Tradition,” for better or worse – and cash cows? For dance companies, it’s Nutcracker . For the Raleigh Little Theatre, it’s Cinderella . For Theatre in the Park, it’s A Christmas Carol . And for the Raleigh Ringers? Well, it’s got to be the Ringers’ now-traditional Christmas concerts, given again this year in Meymandi Concert Hall. The main floor and most of the first balcony were full on the evening of December 20, which was a very good thing – the ensemble merits such attention, but there was a Nutcracker next door, and a Cinderella next door to that, and when the parking’s tight in downtown Raleigh, one never knows. Still, the Ringers have come up with a winning formula, one that never seems to stale, and one that has become, over the years, an essential part of the holiday season for ever-increasing numbers of people. The format remains pretty much the same from year to year, but the selections are constantly augmented with new works and refreshed by revivals of great compositions and arrangements from the group’s constantly expanding repertoire. That the repertoire is gradually becoming international was clear at the latest concerts, which featured works by composers and arrangers based in Paris and Japan. That the Ringers have become known far beyond the Triangle is apparent, too; other arrangements came from folks in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Iowa, etc. It was also clear, if any newcomers may have wondered, that this is not your grade-school or Sunday-school bell choir: with 27-1/2 octaves of bells (overlapping, of course, not end-to-end!) that reside in 47 cases, and with other equipment said to weigh some 5,000 pounds – a box truck is needed to haul all the gear (for which funds are being raised*) – the Ringers are truly a big-time outfit, one that represents Raleigh and our region all over the place. And the extent of that representation is clear this year, too, as their outstanding video is being shown by over 120 PBS stations in 45 states. This is great PR for an outstanding “home team,” PR that helps promote the Triangle in many, many ways.

The concert itself began dramatically with a procession of the Ringers, who started playing while standing in the hall’s aisles. The music in the first half covered a lot of territory, ranging from “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” to the Puerto Rican “Carol of the Wise Men” to Deborah Carr’s new arrangement of the French “Carol of the Birds.” Another French carol, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” arranged by Cathy Moklebust, was one of this section’s highlights, breathtaking in its sheer beauty and many subtleties, graced with wide dynamics (the softest portions told splendidly in the hall), and employing an astonishing variety of bell sounds. William A. Payn’s “Réunir” was revived; it, too, is loaded with remarkable effects, so it was as fascinating to watch the players as it was to hear the musical results of their work. There were lighter pieces, too, that gave the Ringers the chance to carry on, as the Ringers can do…. “Linus and Lucy” is amusing and was amusingly played, and an arrangement of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” allowed for display of gee whiz virtuosity, although it was played so fast it made little musical sense. The first half ended with a shimmering version of the “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker . The various musical selections were woven together with polished and informative commentary by RR Director David M. Harris, remarks that gave the players time to regroup between the numbers.

After a long intermission – sales of Ringer merchandise were brisk – there came several non-seasonal bits (“Dueling Banjos” and “Fiddle-Faddle”) together with radiant versions of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Las Campanas de la Navidad.” This last piece featured guest marimbist Steve Hobbs, whose excellent trio (Russell Lacey, bass, and George Knott, drums) also played, handsomely, “Deck the Halls” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The formal part of the program ended as it always does with Betty Garee’s gorgeous settings of “Veni Emmanuel” (“God with Us for all Time”) and “Silent Night.” With battery-powered candles (provided) in the darkened hall, this served as a moving cap for a full and generous program, one that many in attendance – including this scribe – find an essential component of our region’s holiday season.

But there was, as regulars know, still more. The group reappeared as the Rockin’ Raleigh Ringers to perform (are you ready for this? were you ready, if you were there?) Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” and then “YMCA,”‘ made famous by The Village People and here played by the women while the men served as a chorus line of sorts, out front! By this time, it was after 10 p.m. – past the bedtimes of some of the younger attendees (and some critics, too). There were however no audible complaints. And after all, Christmas comes but once a year. It’s hard to imagine a Yuletide season without the Raleigh Ringers!

Those who missed this concert or its repeat on 12/21 have another shot at the ensemble on Christmas Day, at noon, when WUNC-TV will televise excerpts from the Ringers’ DVD. Read our review of this video, which contains a sublink to our review of the concerts that are featured therein.

*For more information about the Raleigh Ringers, see http://www.rr.org/ .

Edited 12/22/03.