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The Raleigh Ringers are one of those quintessential Raleigh establishments. It just wouldn’t be a Raleigh Christmas without a concert (or two or three) and a Holiday Special on UNC-TV featuring these enthusiastic musicians. This ensemble has done a lot to deserve the unofficial title of Ringers in Residence of the state capitol. They perform constantly at the national and international level and yet stay connected to their hometown. The Raleigh Ringers approach handbells with a musical finesse unfamiliar to those who have seen the instruments used only by casual players. Their annual holiday concert on this evening was well received this year at Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall.
For those of you unfamiliar with advanced handbell choirs, you should know this kind of ensemble can be full of lightness and sensitivity, with a huge range of pitches and timbres at their disposal. Handbells have a reputation for being somewhat cumbersome, but this impression is completely undeserved. The Raleigh Ringers feature stellar coordination, with tricky spots like grace notes, polyrhythms, and shared ornamentation dancing smoothly through the hands of the nineteen members. Under the expressive baton of David M. Harris, the ensemble waltzes through tempo changes, fermatas, and delicate phrase shaping with all the grace of an orchestra.
One of the unique strengths of this ensemble is its emphasis on commissioning new works and arrangements. Partly driven by the necessity that arises from having an unexcelled level of instrumentation (ten types and seven and a half octaves of bells is not a range you typically find in a church attic), the Raleigh Ringers commission three, four, or sometimes five works a year. Many of the arrangements are creative, innovative, and experimental, and show off the best characteristics of the ensemble.
Two especially effective arrangements written for the ensemble were by Hart Morris, selected from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra canon. The pieces lost none of the grand, sweeping power of the original works, while also capitalizing on the natural overtones of the handbells. These works captured the full range of the bells, as well as showcasing the enormous variety of timbres at the disposal of the ensemble.
Another notable selection was Karen Lakey Buckwalter’s original piece, “Reverie.” This work was, as the title suggests, a dreamlike sonic journey. It used dissonance quite effectively, which was refreshing to hear among the candy-sweet Christmas carol arrangements. It was exciting to experience music composed originally for this ensemble, considering the bevy of arrangements that made up most of the program.
The only spot that fell a little flat musically speaking was “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The sense of swing was lacking, leaving a rather square and dry result. Other than that, the musicality was rich and flexible across genres. The flexibility was demonstrated in both the third movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto in G and in the choice of encore. The latter featured a quite abrupt change of mood from the peaceful warmth of a candlelit “Stille Nacht” to a rock concert. The “summer of love” costumes sported by the ensemble didn’t quite match the Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Pink Floyd selections, but the enthusiasm of the players made up for any quasi-anachronisms in a fifteen-minute British rock tribute.
The lighting and technical effects were quite extravagant, and evoked the type of shock and awe approach of ensembles like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. While in some cases the effects enhanced the experience of the music, other choices proved more distracting. For example, the semi-rhythmic flickering of the Christmas lights on various festive set dressings was ineffective and somewhat irritating, while the subtler snowflake projections during “Wizards in Winter” very much reinforced the impression created by the music. While many Classical ensembles feel that they should struggle to seem relevant, I am not convinced that a smoke machine is the best solution to this ongoing issue.
However, some other gags went over quite well. The Grinch appeared during his signature tune to run off with some orchestral bells, and member Kevin Quick materialized during Tchaikovsky’s “Danse Russe Trepak” as a comically imposing Russian solider taking his one itty bitty bell and single entrance quite too seriously. The audience laughed heartily; since both these tunes are played to death during the holiday season, a little novelty was quite appreciated.
Going to see the Raleigh Ringers is a beloved winter tradition for many Raleigh residents. Surprisingly, and very much unlike other holiday concerts, very few children were present in the audience. Since the concert (including the lengthy encore) ran a full two hours and fifteen minutes, the reluctance to bring younger folks is quite understandable. Significantly trimming both repertoire and commentary would result in a more family-friendly concert, and hopefully get more young people interested in this unique ensemble.
This performance repeats on Sunday, December 18 at 3 pm. See the sidebar for details.