Them Ringers sure put on a good show. Of how many more-or-less classical concerts can one say that? Ah, well, back when I got into this reviewing business – not so long ago, really – I was working for the local Caterpillar dealership, and when I’d go to, say, string quartet concerts, I’d carry on about how wonderful they were, and every now and then someone would look at me in amazement and ask what I did in real life, and I’d tell ’em I was in the tractor business. We didn’t have a bunch of pro Ringers back then – pro wrestling was about all she wrote around here. Now we’ve reached the big time. Our state symphony has a fancy new home. We’ve got grand opry and toe dancin’ and such. And we’ve got this world-class group of handbell ringers who just happen to be based here. They’re still pretty much stigmatized with the holiday spirit, and it’s true that, for them, the Christmas season is make-or-break, just as it is for dance companies with Nutcracker and choruses with Messiah. And how much music is there for large handbell ensembles, anyway? Not much, you say? You gotta go hear the Ringers! This outfit, which is led by the distinguished Bell-Meister David Harris, has done what flute choirs (we have one of them, too…) and symphonic wind ensembles (ditto) have done – they’ve commissioned lots and lots of material, including a goodly portion of new, original works. They played some of these at their spring concert, given on the afternoon of June 12, which was a summer day by any local standard – even though it was cold enough inside the hall to simulate winter. The sixteen members work together like a well-oiled (which is not to say well-lubricated – we know nothing about them as party animals) machine, demonstrating the kind of fluidity that single carillon operators or organists fairly often display but large chamber ensembles – this group is the size of a small chamber orchestra – don’t often manage. Just try achieving legato over a healthy melodic span with, say, four people playing only a few notes each – and then quadruple the equation. You get the idea. Toss in wide-ranging dynamics, the vast array of different kinds of bells owned and operated by the Ringers, and make it all look easy and fun – well, the picture begins to emerge. The Raleigh Ringers, we’ll say again, are virtuosi as individuals and collectively, and if you’re not up to speed with them, you’re missing a major ensemble on our local scene.

“The program,” the booklet centerfold told us, “will include selections from…” the list that followed, and it did, mostly. After the Ringer’s customary recorded music and Frosty Clark’s famous announcement, played in total darkness as the artists took their places on the stage of Meymandi Concert Hall, things got underway with “Extreme Fanfare,” a brand-new piece by Jason Graves, who worked with the Ringers on their award-winning Christmas dvd, which has been syndicated to public TV stations across the country. The ensemble sounded like a calliope in Fucik’s “Entry of the Gladiators,” played in a transcription by William H. Griffin. William A. Payn’s “Visions,” an original work, has a hymn-like main theme that was realized with awesome reverence and skill that made the resulting sonority sound quite like a pipe organ. But the afternoon was not to be terribly serious, as the theme tune (or, as the Brits say, the signature song) of The Benny Hill Show demonstrated, in an arrangement by RR Assistant MD Kryn Krautheim. Two pieces by Karen Lakey Buckwalter – “Psalm 42” and “A Walk in the Park” – both written for the Ringers – brought new levels of exceptional playing that gave pleasure and inspired awe concurrently, although the shenanigans in the latter seemed a tad forced. Fred Gramann’s version of the old hymn Veni Creator Spiritus would have fit nicely in the December program but was welcome enough on this occasion, and it led handily to the last work on the first half, Michael Kastner’s brilliant transcription of Bach’s “Little Fugue.”

The second half was ligher but no less impressively delivered. The Ringers are at once artists and showmen & – women, and one’s never sure if they really need Harris, aside from his banter, which (we finally figured out) provides cover for the players to set up their instruments for the next piece – there being a lot of hardware on the stage. It was Whitechapel vs. Malmark bells in “Dueling Banjos,” and then the selections were all over the stylistic map, from Betty Garee’s serene arrangement of “America the Beautiful” to the premiere of Hart Morris’s setting of “Bugler’s Holiday” to (believe it or not) “Pinball Wizard,” from Tommy (and don’t ask how this writer knew the source). By this time, things has progressed (or, if you prefer, degenerated) to the point where the Ringers’ usual transition to tie-dyed shirts, wigs, strobe lights, lava lamps, and such seemed almost redundant – but they metamorphosed and rendered still more – “Freebird” was given in the “echt” version (as opposed to that of the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz), albeit not on original instruments…. A funny thing happened during this. One of Raleigh’s Finest came into the first balcony, presumably to check out the noise and to ensure that the crowd wasn’t getting completely out of hand. He took a look at the stage, seemed to shake his head, and then stood as if transfixed. After a long pause, he shook his head again – and left (or fled) into the darkness of the exit corridor. One wonders what he thought of the goings-on! In any event, he missed the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird – a nice pairing with “Freebird” – and an extended version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” that brought the program to its close and the audience to its feet. It was, as we said, quite a show – and quite a concert. Don’t miss ’em, next time!

It was a truly remarkable weekend in the Triangle, no kidding. In Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, Tosca held the boards while RLT and NCSU’s TheatreFest competed for customers. Summerfest continued in Cary. The ADF was in full swing in Durham, and the great Vocal Arts Ensemble performed in Duke Chapel on Sunday evening. In Chapel Hill, a stunning exhibition of figure studies by thirteen artists opened at Somerhill Gallery – among the painters represented is Herb Jackson, whose “Dawn Welcome,” an immense canvas, adorns the Swalin Lobby of Meymandi Concert Hall. (The latter is just a few feet away from a life-size double bust of the Swalins – mention of which provides an excuse to note that Maxine Swalin celebrated her 102nd birthday on May 7!) In the Triangle, things are, in a word, jumping. It wasn’t long ago that June was as dull as the vanishing Fayetteville Street mall on a workday evening. Metro Magazine‘s Bernie Reeves, whose earlier publication, Spectator Magazine, helped unite the Triangle culturally, can hardly be alone in his surprise and pleasure at the progress we’ve made here, in the arts.