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This year, the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts hosted the Raleigh Ringers’ holiday performances at Meymandi Concert Hall. These concerts are as secular as a concert full of Christmas carols can be. Mainstream signifiers of the season are pillars of red and green lights, poinsettias galore, and a stunted tree brought onstage during two Vince Guaraldi pieces from A Charlie Brown Christmas. But the group’s showmanship and impeccable performance standards mark what is for some a sacred occasion with consummate respect. Add to that the Raleigh Ringers’ trademark musical inventiveness and sense of humor and you’ve got a great entertainment choice for anyone planning Christmastime activities.
This year, a special guest joined the Ringers for their holiday concerts. Dean Shostak is a revivalist of the glass armonica, Benjamin Franklin’s idiosyncratic musical invention. Though he studied violin in school, Shostak's involvement with Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia gave him the opportunity to explore antique and glass instruments. The glass armonica consists of glass bowls of varying sizes oriented horizontally on a long spindle, which turns when a foot treadle is pressed. The player touches the rims of the bowls with his or her fingers. The resulting tones are shimmery and ethereal, with the ability to sound as cheerful as a calliope or haunting like some kind of eighteenth-century theremin. In addition to a pre-concert solo performance, Shostak joined the Ringers for the second half of their program on glass armonica and glass violin, including a piece for which a small ensemble played a set of Shostak’s delicate crystal hand bells.
The program incorporated arrangements of classical pieces, traditional music, and popular carols, many of which were transcribed or arranged specifically for the Raleigh Ringers or by its members. It began with a frenetic arrangement of “Wizards in Winter,” a Trans-Siberian Orchestra piece most recently known for its appearance in a YouTube video accompanying rhythmic flashing Christmas lights in 2005. After “Waltz” from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings came Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Linus and Lucy”; as musically adept as the Raleigh Ringers’ performances are, these tunes seemed to translate best to hand bells.
Of course, carols like “Pat-a-pan” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are a cinch to adapt for any instrumentation, but it takes a high level of skill and creative vision to make music out of these pervasive pieces. After versions of “Malagueña” and another Trans-Siberian Orchestra offering, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” Shostak took the stage solo to introduce his instrument. He ran through quick, dazzling self-arranged treatments of seasonal standards “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “Coventry Carol,” a medley of “Carol of the Bells,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Jingle Bells,” and “O Holy Night.” Shostak’s playing was impeccable and his tone pleasantly full; he wowed the audience, but he whooshed through these relatively short pieces perhaps a little too quickly. The glass armonica and glass hand bells, with their gentler articulation, brought a wistful lightness to the hymn “I Wonder as I Wander.”
The Raleigh Ringers closed with “The Holly and the Ivy,” a version of “Veni Immanuel” called “God With Us for All Time,” and a quietly jubilant performance of “Stille Nacht.”
Then the ensemble went all out for an endearingly goofy skit, tie-dyed costumes and crazy wigs for two rock’n roll encores, Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” and a truncated version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” with Shostak joining in on glass violin for the latter. This performance was a successful combination of innovative musicianship, seasonal sentiment, and family entertainment, and affirmed the Raleigh Ringers’ stellar reputation as musical innovators. The group’s status as one of the Triangle’s most treasured musical organizations is well earned and firmly intact.