The Croatan High School parking lot offers a glimpse of Bogue Sound and Bogue Bank beyond. The lot was being shared by concert goers and spectators for some kind of athletic event. Could it have been handbell on one side and handball on the other? My pun was wasted on the very kind but intense volunteer usher who was directing concert goers to the new and excellent auditorium.
In the auditorium, recorded tracks from Trans-Siberian Orchestra were blasting too loud on the auditorium sound system to warm up the crowd, and a relatively small video panel hung over the stage; an unchanging display remained throughout the performance, proclaiming "The Raleigh Ringers." Handbells themselves are mostly rather small, but a huge amount of kit is required to stage a performance as professional as a Raleigh Ringers concert. This kit, foam-covered tables draped in black, myriads of bells of all sizes, Choirchimes®, and a set of batons (Wii-like programmable gadgets and their speakers) were all on the stage. The Raleigh Ringers is said to own over 380 individual bells or chimes, although all are not played at once.
The oldest set of handbells I've seen was made in 1866 as part of an order from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for tower bells at St. Mary's Church, Burlington, New Jersey. This set of twelve, like other early handbells, was intended as a practice tool for the tower bell ringers. Although such tower bells were not intended to ring tunes, there are wags in all ages; during the American Revolution, the ringers at St. Michael's, Charleston, South Carolina, made the tower bells jeer, "three blind mice, see how they run," at the turn-tail British. In the same way, people were soon using the tower's practice bells for tune-ringing, and sets became larger and larger. Handbells, like the recorder, are seen by the naïve as easy to play, causing them to be assigned to children and other beginners, inflicting excruciating pain on generations of hapless parents and churchgoers. Such is not the case with the Raleigh Ringers.
The Raleigh Ringers consistently play at a tempo and with a precision to be envied by many a professional symphony orchestra. The nineteen members perform the intense choreography of handbell tune ringing with thoroughly professional accuracy and grace.
The peculiar genre of handbell music requires very careful arrangement or transcription in order to play music intended for other instruments; thus program listings frequently cite the arranger ahead of the composer. The program consisted of "Requiem (The Fifth)," arr. Hart Morris; "Farandole" from L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2, trans. William H. Griffin; "Escape Velocity," composed for the Raleigh Ringers by Jason W. Krug; "Aria," composed for the Raleigh Ringers by Donald E. Allured; "Yakety Sax," arranged for the Raleigh Ringers by Kryn Krautheim; "Quest," composed for the Raleigh Ringers by William A. Payn; "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy," arranged for the Raleigh Ringers by Fred Gramann; Prelude in B Major [Saint-Saëns] composed for the Raleigh Ringers by Fred Gramann; "Fantasy on King's Weston," arranged for the Raleigh Ringers by Gramann; "Dust in the Wind," arranged for the Raleigh Ringers by Keith Burt; "Passages," composed for the Raleigh Ringers by Payn; "Linus and Lucy," arranged for the Raleigh Ringers by Morris; and "Wizards in Winter," arranged for the Raleigh Ringers by Morris. Standing ovations called forth two encores, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," transcribed for the Raleigh Ringers by Griffin, and "Flight of the Bumblebee," arranged for the Raleigh Ringers by Martha Lynn Thompson.
This program of fifteen pieces was drawn from a printed program of seventeen pieces. Handbell performance at the incredible level demonstrated by the Raleigh Ringers requires incredible amounts of practice and discipline; no expression and no ad-lib, beyond what is rehearsed and agreed upon, is possible. Sightreading of complicated pieces is also impractical. Numerous different techniques are incorporated to produce different timbres and types of strikes. The Raleigh Ringers are masters of all these techniques.
With the TSO warm-up music, all the kit on stage, and Music Director David M. Harris' dire threats before intermission, I was expecting firepots and lasers during the "rock-n-roll" portion of the concert. Instead all we got was one large lava lamp and a bunch of rainbow tie-dyed gloves and wigs. "Dust in the Wind" was the least successful of the program selections, with the bells rising to a big roar.
There are some inherent problems with a tableful of tuned bells as a musical instrument; the Raleigh Ringers pretty much avoid any of these. In the same way that it is hard to hear the thrump-tiddy-thrump-tiddy-thrump-thrump-thrump of the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger, it is very hard to hear handbells without thinking of Christmas carols. To avoid this, the highly innovative style of modern handbell ringing reduces the amount of typical bell sound, relying on large amounts of martellato – striking the bell on the foam-covered table for a more staccato effect – plucking, either on or off the table, moving the clapper with the performer's fingers instead of by moving the bell, striking the bell with a yarn-headed mallet, or stroking the rim with a dowel, approximating the technique of the glass armonica. Modern handbell arrangements also rely on huge waves of tone color without too much musical content to provide the satisfying effect of lots of ringing.
Satisfying indeed was the effect at this concert, with copious applause after every piece and three standing ovations, with cheering and whistling.