There is hardly any place in North Carolina (or the United States, for that matter) that doesn't have at least one "bell choir" operating under the auspices of a local religious congregation. Several communities have a secular group of ringers as well. Everybody knows those sounds.
But the big-time ringing event is any concert by the Raleigh Ringers. They are the worthy successors of P. T. Barnum's Swiss Bell Ringers (who were actually from Lancashire in England). The Swiss Bell Ringers performed in the 1840s and 50s and were a powerful drawing card for Barnum's show. The Raleigh Ringers are a drawing card for themselves. And there's plenty of marketing and chance to buy their CDs as well.
Judging from a show of hands, at least half and perhaps two-thirds of the audience had attended a previous performance by the Raleigh Ringers. Another show of hands identified at least as many people who admitted to having rung hand bells.
This performance was definitely a show, a show directed at those two interconnecting sets of people. There is a lot of the rock concert and a lot of the concert hall in what they do, and they do both very, very well. There was warm-up music (romantic string orchestra was what I heard) playing on the sound system as people entered the Broyhill Civic Center, a fine medium-size hall. The stage trappings are carefully chosen to dignify and unify the team of ringers. The programs are glossy and luxurious. The Raleigh Ringers present a great show but most importantly, their showmanship is built on a very solid foundation of precise musicianship. They hit the right notes, at the right time, and with the right volume. And they hit lots and lots of notes!
This year's Holiday Concert included three types of pieces. There were arrangements of Christmas music: "Stille Nacht"; "Still, Still, Still"; "I Wonder As I Wander"; "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy"; and "Sing We All Noel," a medley of Christmas carols. There were arrangements of pops type music from both classical and contemporary music: the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's Serenande for Strings, Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax," Leroy Anderson's "Bugler's Holiday," "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Wizards in Winter," and "Gaudete" from Piae Cantiones (1582). There were original compositions for sets of hand bells: William Payn's "Quest" and Betty Garee's "God With Us For All Time," a blending of the "Westminster Chimes" and "Veni Emmanuel."
Handbells considered as a musical instrument shares much of the qualities of the gamelan and the steel pans, in that different notes of the various lines are given to individuals, who have the responsibility of doing nothing at all until the moment their note is needed, then ringing precisely, damping precisely, and returning to rest. This explanation is highly simplified, especially in the case of the Raleigh Ringers where 14 to 18 people are handling anywhere from 84 to twice that many individual bells and chimes. So they do a lot of bell shuffling and picking up and putting down. The whole procedure is carefully planned in advance, extensively rehearsed, and performed with no opportunity for improvisation.
All this movement gives broad scope for professionalism... and for silliness. The Raleigh Ringers are masters of both. Starting at the top, Director David M. Harris is precisely dressed in white tie and tails. The men of the team wear tuxedos and the women wear black tuxedo-type trousers and a sort-of tea-length black cassock. All players wear black gloves, most of the time, anyway. The biggest comic relief is an appearance by the Rocking Raleigh Ringers, with strobe light, flame pots, a lava lamp, smoke, and costume consisting of tie-dyed t-shirts and all kinds of wigs and caps. The music was (I believe) Styx's "Come Sail Away" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." The full house loved all this. Of all the pieces on the program, these two tunes were least rock-like, totally devoid of any life.
The "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" featured chime bars for the melody; they are very celesta-like. This playing, like the whole evening, was razor-sharp. "Gaudete" was performed antiphonally from the two wings of the stage, using a set of Malmark bells with their typically bright English hand bell sound and a set of Petit & Fritsen bells, very long waisted, with a haunting hollow sound.
Much of the magic worked by the Raleigh Ringers comes from their frequent use of the technique of striking a bell with a mallet while the bell is lying on the foam-padded table. This produces a sound akin to pizzicato strings. Their collection also includes a number of quite large hand bells and large chime instruments.
Highly theatrical, musically precise, easy in intellectual content, very good amusement — all good reasons to attend at least one Raleigh Ringers concert. You'll have a good time and find out also if you are a hand bell groupie.