On October 21, a Duke Chapel performance by the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, San Francisco’s answer to the Raleigh Ringers, demonstrated conclusively that the twelve-member California organization is one of the finest such groups in America. We’ve long sensed that this is so, for Sonos has given high visibility to the art form, appearing on Garrison Keillor’s show, “Performance Today,” PBS and elsewhere. There were many remarkable things about the visitors’ concert, not least of which was that theirs was a unified program with a consistent theme. It helped, too, that most of the arrangements were for the most part by one master. And it helped that that master also serves as the ensemble’s Artistic Director and Conductor. And it was nice, too, that that Artistic Director and Conductor is a Tarheel with deep musical roots here in North Carolina.

Sonos is led by James Meredith, who grew up in New Bern, where he studied with Nara Snornieks, now a Raleigh resident. At UNC, he studied with William S. Newman. His graduate work was at Tulane, where he was drawn by the brilliance of Sylvia Zaremba’s distinctive Chopin interpretations. Since 1990, he has led Sonos, which aims, he says, to be the first professional handbell choir in America–and maybe the world. Along the way, however, Meredith has continued to make his mark as a world-class pianist and accompanist; among his regular partners have been Olivia Stapp and Frederica von Stade (and he’s been heard on Keillor’s show with the latter, too).

An informed listener might have sensed Meredith’s pianistic knowledge and skills in the program presented by Sonos on October 21. The title was “Runaway Child,” and the concert told the story of the remarkable life and travels of Isaac Albéniz. In the “Early Influences” section of the program were a transcription of a keyboard sonata by Soler and two Sephardic (Ladino) romances, arranged by Meredith for flute (Diane Tiller) and handbells from earlier arrangements for voice and piano by Yehezkel Braun. As Meredith, an informative and amusing narrator, related, Albéniz hopped a ship to Cuba when he was 12, so the Ports of Cal l portion of the late afternoon concert included Lecuona’ Malagueña and four of Ginastera’s Popular Argentinean Songs, in which flutist Tiller again made significant contributions. “Repatriation” took us back to Spain and music by Albéniz himself and his contemporaries. The program continued with four of Albéniz’s well-known Cantos de España, two Spanish Dances by Moszkowski (who, as Meredith noted, was hardly the first non-Spaniard to write “Spanish” music), Granados’ Arabesca , and one of Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs (again with flute and handbells). The grand finale–and it was grand, indeed–was a dazzling version of the latter’s Ritual Fire Dance that suggested in a somewhat oblique way the great Artur Rubinstein’s pianistic wizardry. (Meredith described a performance by that giant on a long-ago Friends of the College concert wherein the Fire Dance figured prominently.) The encore was a high-camp rendition of Copland’s Hoe-down, which apparently proved to be a big hit in the previous evening’s concert in West Jefferson (the mini-tour included as well a performance in Spartanburg) and was also enthusiastically received in the Chapel.

Like the Raleigh Ringers, Sonos travels with a huge array of bells and chimes. (One can only imagine how much trouble they must have clearing airport security with all that metal.) As with the Raleigh Ringers, it is fascinating to watch the performances and to note the close coordination among and between the players themselves–the sharing of bells, the use of techniques that your run-of-the-mill church handbeller would find downright peculiar (pounding bells into pads on the table, tapping bells with various drumsticks and mallets, muffling bells against thighs, etc.). One member of the audience observed that, as Sonos (and our local group) have shown us, handbell playing at this exalted level is a team sport that requires as much partnership as a well-oiled football or basketball squad. Incidentally, that squad grew to 13 members in Moszkowski’s Bolero as road manager Dave Kail took a turn as a percussionist.

The sound of this ensemble in Duke Chapel was remarkably good from fairly close in although one can only imagine how it might have sounded from the far reaches of the Gothic structure. Just how good it was may be heard via the Chapel’s website, for which webcast–the first in the Chapel’s history–the microphones were very close to the players. (This concert is archived at http://www.chapel.duke.edu/; the audio is excellent and, given the present state of this still-fledgling technology, the video is more than acceptable. Instructions for accessing and seeing/hearing the program are at the site. The Chapel webgroup may wish to edit out the intermission and other gaps – the show lasts an hour and 56 minutes!)

We won’t comment on each piece, in part because readers may hear the program for themselves. Overall, however, this concert broke new ground insofar as handbells are concerned. The Raleigh Ringers seem to this listener to be as proficient and well-oiled as Sonos, but the Ringers’ concerts tend to cover much more ground, musically and stylistically, because of the range of offerings and the fact that many different arrangers tend to be represented. Sonos’ offerings, on the other hand, were confined to one musical genre, and nine of the ten arrangements were Meredith’s. It was, as a result, both eye- and ear-opening. We salute the Californians and wish them well as they pursue their goals. And in the event they ever return to the East Coast, bell ringers here, bell enthusiasts throughout the region, and classical mainstreamers, too, owe it to themselves to turn out in force to hear them!

For more information on Sonos, see the group’s website at http://www.sonos.org/. Audio clips may be found there, along with information on Sonos’ recordings. And in the interest of equal time, here, too is the Raleigh Ringer’s home page, where info on their concerts and CDs may be found: http://www.rr.org/.