From humble beginnings twelve years ago at Peace College, where there were apparently about as many people in the hall as there were on the stage, the Raleigh Ringers have “grown” their holiday concerts through several venues, including Jones Auditorium and, in recent seasons, NCSU’s Stewart Theatre, where eventually three presentations of the show were given annually. It was nonetheless a big gamble when the group decided to try out Meymandi Concert Hall, where the sound is superior to our other area halls but the capacity comes close to the sum of all the seats in all the other local venues where the Ringers have rung. Based on our attendance at the second of the ensemble’s downtown presentations, witnessed on the afternoon of December 16, the Ringers cannot have been disappointed. The upper levels were kept closed till the main floor was full and overflow quickly consumed many places in the first balcony. The turnout was gratifying to many attendees, including this writer, who has charted the Ringers’ remarkable progress almost from the outset. The sound in the new hall was generally excellent, and the visuals were remarkably fine, too. The large stage was loaded with bells, about which more anon, and its depth was broken by several illuminated panels onto which colored lights played. This created the impression of considerable intimacy, and indeed it worked so well that we are convinced that a shell must be obtained and deployed in the new hall whenever small groups – recitalists, chamber ensembles, chamber orchestras and choirs, etc. – perform there. 

A glance at our calendar reveals that the Raleigh Ringers’ holiday concerts were not the last of our Christmas shows this season, but they must rank among the best such offerings here in the Triangle and, in terms of the pure, refined art of superior handbell ringing, among the best in the nation. Director David Harris has long fielded outstanding ensembles, and this year’s bunch, sixteen strong, functioned like a well-oiled machine. He’s spent a considerable amount of time (and, no doubt, a princely sum of money, too) building his enterprise, chiefly by pursuing three crucial avenues: demanding of his players the kind of technical finesse and interpretive skills normally found only in the best mainline chamber groups; commissioning (and publishing) new works and arrangements for large handbell ensembles; and purchasing bells– lots of bells. In the latter department, he now has an astonishing 330 bells which span some 27-1/2 octaves. Naturally, there aren’t 27-1/2 octaves in the audible spectrum, so this means that he has different kinds of bells that sound the same notes, and that variety enables his composers and arrangers to come up with some truly unique sonic combinations.

The results were on display as the program began with Hart Morris’ arrangement of “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” a crossover work that, as rendered by the Ringers, didn’t sound like one. It and Fred Gramann’s politically correct “Good Christian Friends , Rejoice” (plus three other numbers given in the first half and one, in the second) represented the Ringers’ outstanding commissioning program, which has borne fruit in a great long list of works named in fine print in the slick program. Some of these original pieces (or arrangements) have appeared in previous RR holiday concerts. It was a delight to revisit William A. Payn’s “Pinnacle.” A sparkling version of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture by Martha Lynn Thompson provided a sop to the classical contingent of the crowd amid more conventional fare that included “Up on the Housetop,” “Greensleeves,” “Blue Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride.”

Part two began with what Harris said was the Ringers’ first full rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and he’s doubtless correct, although we recall having heard bits and pieces of it on previous occasions. This thing, which began with the Overture Miniature and included the Marche, the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, three character dances, Mirlitons, and the Waltz of the Flowers, is a composite of arrangements by five different people, but it seemed to work just fine as a collection, even though each number drew individual applause and there were readings (by former Ringer Sherry Graham) and pauses while the musicians set up between each part. During one of these gaps, there was a cameo appearance by a scraggly guy in a pink tutu who looked like he might have taken a wrong turn (in more ways than one) next door, where a Nutcracker of a whole different kind was going down. (To hear the magical Suite in a more concise version with its intended orchestration, try any of Thomas Beecham’s several recordings.) 

After the Tchaikovsky, the concert ended with the Ringers’ traditional grand finale, a lovely pairing of Betty Garee’s arrangements of “God with Us for All Time” and “Silent Night,” in which the darkened hall was transformed into a sea of tiny electric candles, waved by almost every member of the audience.

Those who were taking in the Ringers for the first time may have been surprised at this point, two hours into the show, when a stage hand uncovered a genuine lava lamp and the group launched into an after-concert “concert” of famous rock-‘n’-roll tunes. Gone were those penguin suits and black dresses; the Ringers appeared done up as roadies and augmented by fog and sundry flashes of light. The encores, which Harris explained had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, were “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Pinball Wizard,” and (shades of the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz!) “Stairway to Heaven.” Come to think of it, maybe there were quasi-religious overtones in this segment after all….

The two concerts were recorded for composite DVD/VHS release sometime in 2002, and because the tapings were announced, the crowd was unbelievably quiet. Maybe every concert should get such treatment, whether the recordings are released or not. No babies screamed, no cell phones rang, no pagers buzzed and no one rustled candy wrappers. It was great.

For more information on the Ringers, visit the group’s website, where the CDs that were marketed at intervals during the recent concerts may be purchased and where readers can learn much, much more about them dudes what ring dem 330 or so bells.