The Raleigh Ringers, a handbell choir made up of nearly 20 members and over 400 handbells, gave its spring concert in downtown Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall, an acoustical heaven for the sonorous bells. This is their first home concert of the year after tours throughout April and May from as far north as Baltimore to as far south as Atlanta.

If you’ve never heard handbells before, or if you believe the stereotype that only churches can have handbell choirs, the Raleigh Ringers will certainly wow you. This non-profit, advanced auditioned ensemble plays in a variety of styles, challenging all preconceived notions of bells. They also embody the music they are playing, thinking as one cohesive group in order to tackle the levels of music they program, but adding props and jokes for the audience’s entertainment to keep things from getting dull – as they are sometimes likely to do because of the lengthy setup that each piece requires.

The Ringers began the concert with some contemporary but still reverent music, including a very programmatic work called “Escape Velocity” by Jason W. Krug. This piece painted an image of a space mission, from takeoff all the way to outer space, with very open chords and thought-provoking harmonies. They also played beautiful arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in G minor, Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña,”and a combination of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

However, the Raleigh Ringers are anything but conventional. After intermission, they entered the stage to fog, laser lights, and rock music for their rock and roll set – complete with rocker wigs, sunglasses, and their own personal security guard and roadies. It might have been a little anticlimactic when they started playing the hard-core rock songs on handbells, but the audience was excited anyway. They played complicated but well-executed arrangements of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Conductor David M. Harris showed a lot of energy in performance and talked extensively between pieces about the choir’s history, donors, upcoming tours, and past successes, which caused the two-hour concert to drag a little. However, he made sure to announce the next number each time – sometimes talking about some works’ evolution for longer than they lasted. This was helpful because the printed program’ work-list was not in order.

The Ringers saved their best pieces for last, played as two encores: a rousing rendition of John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which the group will be playing on their July tour to Chautauqua County, New York, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter,” generally played in their holiday concert. The audience ate up every note; one newcomer to the Raleigh Ringers up in the front row was applauding so hard that the conductor recognized him, saying, “You should get a free CD!”

The Raleigh Ringers present music that can be heard nowhere else, contemporary and classical pieces that resonate through the group’s extensive use of bells of varying tones and pitches, chime bars, standing chimes, and percussion. Between the enthusiasm of the ensemble’s members and the power of their music, the Raleigh Ringers have certainly found a home in the hearts of Raleigh audiences in its 22nd year.

The Raleigh Ringers will tour from New York to Florida between July and November; see the Raleigh Ringers’ website for more details. Their next concerts in Meymandi Hall will be their holiday program on December 8th and 9th.