World-renowned handbell choir The Raleigh Ringers delighted a nearly sold-out crowd at Thalian Hall in Wilmington. The ensemble played an assortment of familiar holiday favorites, in addition to some unexpected selections – rock and roll classics arranged for handbells! David M. Harris, conductor and founding member of the group, said early on in the evening that “woots” and “hollers” were encouraged. Before seeing The Raleigh Ringers, I had no idea how lively a handbell choir could get!

Before they even started playing, the stage was prepared for something magical to happen. A long table stretched across the stage; since the area was too small for the large number and variety of bells, the table snaked around near the end. All 17 ensemble members glided ceremoniously onstage to a recording of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Boughs of Holly,” ever-serious with their hands behind their backs. Harris walked out as the intro music stopped. Not a creature was stirring in the hall, quietly anticipating the music as the players lifted their instruments.

The Ringers opened the concert with the “Alleluia Chorus” from the cantata For Us a Child is Born (questionably attributed to Bach), before transitioning seamlessly into a version of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter,” which was arranged for the group. From reverie to rock, The Raleigh Ringers could handle it all.

A great deal of the evening’s selections were special arrangements done specifically for the ensemble, and a handful were even brand new! One of these debut pieces was the Christmas classic “Do You Hear What I Hear?” arranged by Sandra Eithun. The players kept up their energy through the syncopated rhythms, making an old song feel fresh.

The Raleigh Ringers themselves had commissioned another standout premiere. “Outburst” by Karen Lakey Buckwalter was written in honor of a recently deceased devotee of The Raleigh Ringers, Dixie Peterson. Harris gave her a loving tribute, and the performance encapsulated Peterson’s vibrant energy in memoriam.

As the first act closer, the group played “Veni Veni Emmanuel,” the final chord of which prompted audible “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd like I’ve never heard before. This atmospheric holiday standard was given new legs by The Raleigh Ringers. They have traveled to France several times to play with Fred Gramann, the Paris-based composer who arranged it, spreading their talents and virtuosity abroad. It was also extremely characteristic of The Ringers in that it upended expectations about what you can expect from a handbell choir.

After intermission, Harris walked the audience through the vast amounts of equipment that the group utilizes in their performances. They have several sets of bells spanning multiple octaves, hailing from all over the world! There were bells from Pennsylvania, London, and the Netherlands; choir chimes; bells made of brass, bells made of bronze; the list goes on and on. Harris recounted how the latter set of bells were purchased from a listing on Craigslist! Unfortunately, this set wasn’t present at the concert; not all songs call for such a diverse set of instruments. Harris playfully laughed about the size of their collection, joking that it’s “more important to accumulate instruments than to play them.”

Throughout the night, audience attention was drawn to the players operating the bass bells. During another Trans-Siberian Orchestra hit, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” the low players received applause mid-song for the feats performed! Harris clarified that the heavier bells can weigh up to 17 pounds. Watching the musicians wave them around was its own spectacle to marvel at. The players rotated positions between songs, in part to avoid exhausting any one player in particular – I doubt even Schwarzenegger could last an entire concert playing bass for The Raleigh Ringers. In handbell choirs, it’s not particularly common practice for players to rotate positions between numbers, but the fact that this ensemble rotates between every piece is a testament to the talent and versatility of each member.

At one point, they played the infamously zippy orchestral work “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Initially, the piece was introduced into their repertoire as a warm-up song, one that would test their rhythmic nimbleness and connection with one another. I’m glad they added it to the concert, despite the lack of any holiday theme. All the players put on masks and gloves that had black and yellow stripes, while some members donned more intricate costumes: one wore fuzzy antennae, while another wore a daisy-shaped hat. The audience got a kick out of the gag. Another musician wore a beekeeper’s outfit and was the subject of some great slapstick at the number’s percussive climax. What little was lacking in the technical performance of the piece, the humor and showmanship of it all made the number a huge success.

The day of the concert, Wilmington was undergoing warmer temperatures than expected for this time of year. Harris quipped that it was the group’s job to usher in the holiday spirit, even though the weather said otherwise. They played renditions of “O Holy Night,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” which was arranged by the ensemble’s very own Keith Burt. The Ringers closed with a two-parter: “The First Noel,” which transitioned into a beautiful rendition of “Silent Night.” Even though the weather outside was delightful, The Ringers filled the auditorium with reverence and awe for this wonderful time of year; I half expected to see snow upon leaving the theater.

The ensemble left the stage to rigorous applause, but shortly emerged dressed in 70s Rock & Roll hippie regalia. Lasers and smoke filled the stage. For a dual encore, they played The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Naturally, the latter required audience participation; everyone belted the chorus at the top of their lungs! The crowd was beaming after the concert, delighted with both the music and the laughter offered by the performance.

It’s not often that you might get the chance to see a handbell performance as beautiful or as entertaining as the Raleigh Ringers – it would be impossible to find another handbell choir that could be both at the same time.

The Raleigh Ringers will be performing in their hometown at Meymandi on Sunday and Monday, December 12-13. See our sidebar for details.