If you are a citizen of the Triangle, and you’ve never heard of the Raleigh Ringers, all I can say is “why not?” The Raleigh Ringers, the Capitol City’s own handbell choir, is now concluding its thirtieth year of performance; the last nineteen years’ holiday concerts have all been performed in Meymandi Concert Hall at the Duke Energy Center. The Raleigh Ringers are an ensemble of 18; they are (and have always been) led by conductor David M. Harris, who was instrumental in forming the group in 1990.

There is a reason why handbell players are referred to as a choir; if you have witnessed a concert, you know that the layout for a bell choir very much resembles the layout for a vocal chorus. As you view the stage, the high bells are on your left, very much as the sopranos would be in a chorus, and as you travel left to right, the bells get markedly deeper, until the bass bells, like the bass section of a chorus, are on your right. It is also somewhat common, though not at all specific, that the ladies are on your left and the gentlemen on your right. There’s also a reason for this; the bells are pitched, for the most part, by size – the higher the bell, the smaller it is, and the deeper a bell sounds, the larger it is. Thus, the bells on your right onstage are measured in pounds, not ounces, and if you are to become adept at playing these bass bells, you had best have a pair of good, strong arms. Depending on the piece of music performed, you can lose a number of calories exercising your prowess with these bells. In particular, the gentlemen in the Raleigh Ringers got quite the workout at this evening’s concert.

I was always aware of the existence of bell choirs; a number of churches may have them, and every now and again I have been fortunate enough to catch a choir on television. But this is the first time I have actually been able to attend a live concert. I learned quickly that, if you are to fully appreciate a bell choir, you must use your eyes as well as your ears. You might want to sit back and close your eyes, and just listen, but if you do, you are limiting your experience. Ringers play two-fisted. Most every ringer will hold a pair of bells at a time; sometimes, more than one per hand! A ringer may be responsible for several bells, laid out before him or her. But, apparently, the most any ringer can ring at any given time is two, and more times than not, only one at a time.

Ringers do not play music like most everyone else; there is a reason they have numbers in the teens. If you are a musician, whether a singer or a player, you learn your line of melody, and you perform it. If you are playing in an orchestra, then your section plays the same thing you do, and you perform that line of music from beginning to end. Bell choir music is not played that way. A bell ringer may have no more than perhaps six bells, or six tones, in his arsenal. He learns his music as a part of a group. The group plays the music as a player plays a piano; if the line of music calls for an A, then the ringer who rings the A bell learns the music and where in that music the A’s fall. And when the time comes, he plays the A in sequence. Depending on what bells he rings, he may (or may not) have long rests between the times he plays that A. A ringer must learn all the music and its sequence, because it is paramount that he hit those tones at precise intervals and no other time. The choir, then, is the instrument that plays the music, one ringer plays only one note (at a time), much like a key on a piano. The concentration and precision required is immense.

You must also know that there are more than one type of bell in a bell choir. While most are the usual bell shape, there are also tubular bells, much like in an orchestra; there are also hand-held tubular bells, with the clapper on the outside. Also, there are oftentimes a range of bells, which are all mounted in a rack; these are played much like one would play a xylophone. At this concert, the Ringers performed 15 selections, ranging from Bach to traditional carols, as well as some tunes one would already know if one were a fan of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Harris programmed three pieces by that group. We were also blessed with a world premiere of a work written especially for the Raleigh Ringers by composer Sandra Eithun, “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.” The composer also arranged two of the concert’s selections, “O Holy Night” and “Savior of the Nations, Come,” originally a Gregorian chant. Eithun was in Raleigh with her family for the premiere; they will attend the Sunday concert, which begins at 4 pm. The group also played a song originally written by Greg Lake, of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer fame, titled “I Believe in Father Christmas.”

These works are every bit as nuanced, complex, and stunning as any concert piece; and they can cause just as profound a reaction in a concert goer. Indeed, some of these works had crescendos, requiring the full complement of all 36 hands, that were just as visually entertaining and audibly stunning as is a symphony or a concerto.

But even as the concert wound down, closing with a trio of traditional Christmas carols, we still had a surprise in store. After “Silent Night,” the nominal finale, the audience showed considerable appreciation and the ringers left the stage, but Harris did not. Instead, he explained the group’s penchant for presenting, as an encore, a piece of music from the Rock genre. In fact, he told us, they would present here two selections, the first being a tune originally performed by the group Styx, titled “Fooling Yourself.” It appears the audience was well acquainted with the song. Following that, Harris told us, would be another song – well, we would probably recognize it. After a rendition of Styx that followed the song closely, with every nuance, riff, and solo intact, the Ringers moved quickly into the final tune of the evening. Indeed, the audience knew it well, and I was no exception. The audience even participated, loudly humming the tune as the bells rang it out across the hall. The only thing I can say is, you have never heard Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” until you’ve heard it played by the Raleigh Ringers!

The Raleigh Ringers play this concert once more, Sunday at 4 pm – see the sidebar – but if you haven’t got tickets, I cannot guarantee you success; the evening concert was a sellout. But if you miss it, don’t despair; you can catch another concert as early as January 4; you’ll simply have to drive to Pinehurst to do it! The Ringers will present a concert at the 22nd Annual Best of Our State Celebration. Check out the full year’s concerts at rringer@rr.org!

Note: The Ringers’ latest CD is reviewed here. It would make an ideal stocking-stuffer!