Any good dictionary would define sonorous as some variation of "high-sounding; impressive; richly resonant." Furnishing that very sonority on a crisp autumn evening was the Sonos Handbell Ensemble from San Francisco. The setting was on the campus of Vance-Granville Community College, located in the altogether pleasant and bucolic countryside between the towns of Henderson and Oxford.
Under the leadership of artistic director (and founder) James Meredith, the group celebrated the "Music of Three Worlds" — America, Europe, and Asia. North Carolina native Meredith, educated at UNC-Chapel Hill and Tulane University, arranged all of the works on the program for handbells. His expository comments were most helpful, all of them synchronized exactly to give the players the time needed for frantic rearrangement of the bells for the next number.
One feature distinguishing Sonos from other top-flight groups was their consistent use of instrumental soloists. Among the dozen ringers could be found an accomplished clarinetist, flutists, and percussionists. All but one of the numbers featured at least one of these performers.
American music predominated. "Mountain Habanera," from a folksong, proved to be a crowd favorite. Reminiscent of Colorado's Durango and Silverton railroad, it featured realistic sound effects with even a train whistle. The players performed dance movements that must have been choreographed by Casey Jones himself.
A suite from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess might well have drawn the most applause from the sizable audience. Only bells and hand chimes were employed here, with the character of the selected bells setting the mood of the work. Billings, Ives, and MacDowell were other Americans represented. The players provided spiritual uplift as they decided to "Wade in the Water," and of course this group would have to include "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." This signature piece offered a departure from the others as co-arranger Cathy Fink served as virtuoso bell soloist, negotiating the entire melody herself with her colleagues in back-up mode. Indeed, uncommon virtuosity was required of all the ringers in two passes through the brief MacDowell piece, "To a Hummingbird," with its reported metronome marking of 160!
Mozart was the lone European presented. His "Rondo alla Turca" showed early in the evening the power of the group. The treble end of the spectrum was particularly stunning. You could see the bells. You could hear the sounds. But you still were hard pressed to believe it. How could so few people produce all those notes?
"Red Dragonfly," by Japanese composer Kousaku Yamada, featured appealing clarinet lines, made especially interesting by their curious Early American character. One was reminded of "Shenandoah," a tune actually featured later in the program as an encore. In "Echoes of Ancient Japan," an Eastern traditional, one could visualize Walt Disney's exotic cats singing "We are Siamese if you please...."
This outstanding presentation was made possible by the diligent work of the Henderson Community Concert Association. That organization is due praise from all who appreciate the finer arts.