This weekend, the Raleigh Ringers gave their annual holiday concert in downtown Raleigh at Meymandi Concert Hall, attracting not only their loyal followers who attend every concert but also many new audience members who were certainly in for a treat. Handbells are generally associated with sacred music, and although much Christmas music is religious, the Ringers had a few tricks up their sleeves.

For anyone who has never seen a handbell choir perform, I highly recommend it. Each player is responsible for many bells and chimes at a time. This becomes a major part of the performance: watching the man in charge of ringing ten of the giant bells throughout the course of a number – the biggest one weighs 17 pounds! – is quite entertaining. The Raleigh Ringers own around 350 bells and chimes, worth around $160,000, total.

The first half of the concert showcased the musical talent and cohesiveness of the Ringers, featuring magical arrangements of Christmas favorites with intricate flourishes running up and down through the bells. It was obvious how much focus the group had when they were able to pass along melodic parts to each other without a hitch. Their rendition of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” arranged by Hart Morris, who arranges a large number of works specifically for the Raleigh Ringers, was a crowd favorite. The Ringers have played this tune at many concerts in the past and added a cute skit involving a “Handbell GPS” that gives directions during the performance: this helped keep it fresh for those who had seen the Raleigh Ringers perform before.

Another new twist came when director David Harris explained that there is quite a variety of handbell repertoire that is not religious. Before playing “Dust in the Wind,” custom-arranged by Keith Burt, the Ringers went off stage for a costume change, entering to fog, simulated fire coming up from their set equipment, and rock concert lights. Dressed in tie-dye, sunglasses, and crazy wigs, the Ringers played this Kansas classic in the true spirit of rock and roll, creating an instant crowd favorite.

The second half of the concert involved the Raleigh Ringers joining forces with the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, made up of NC State students and community members. The symphony served as accompaniment to the Ringers and also played two items separately. When they played by themselves, their placement on stage had an effect on the sound; because they were so far upstage and behind several set pieces from the Ringers, their sound was muted and a little muddy. However, when trying to fit 350 bells, over sixty players, and enough space for violin bows and elbow room, space is hard to find, and both ensembles did the best they could.

During the numbers in which the orchestra accompanied the Ringers, there were some intonation and timing issues, both because of the space between the two ensembles and the fact that the handbells are not tunable. Perhaps the orchestra might have tuned to a bell at the beginning of the concert? David Harris, director of the Ringers, and Dr. Randolph Foy, director of the orchestra and guest conductor on several of the works at this particular concert, did excellent jobs trying to communicate to both ensembles, adapting their styles in order to match what each group was used to.

By far the best part of the night were the two encores, “Wizards in Winter” and “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 1224,” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and arranged for orchestra and handbells by Hart Morris. Both were very high-energy (even the light crew got to play around and flash the lights in time with the music) and familiar songs that everyone was able to dance along with. All in all, the concert was very impressive It’s a shame that the Raleigh Ringers don’t get as much publicity for their non-Christmas concerts, because they are a wonderfully talented group of people who bring the magic back into music.