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Raleigh Ringers Ring in the Season

by John W. Lambert

There are many ways to observe the holidays that dot December, but one common thread must be "tradition," and the Raleigh Ringers have been giving holiday shows long enough for their annual seasonal offerings to count in that category, along with annual runs of Messiah, Nutcracker, Cinderella, and our old pal Scrooge.

The Raleigh Ringers are without doubt one of our nation's leading handbell choirs, rivaled only by Sonos and perhaps one or two other ensembles. To paraphrase our colleague Jeffrey Rossman's recent assessments of Ethel, the Ringers are not your father's handbell choir. The precision and musicianship — worthy of the word "virtuosity" — put all other such outfits — parochial school ensembles, church handbell groups, various tinklers whose bell-ringings serve as adjuncts to other musical endeavors, etc. — thoroughly in the shade. Recently I suggested that everyone needs to hear a complete Messiah at least once. It's a fact, too, that everyone needs to hear the Raleigh Ringers at least once, and their annual holiday gigs are good choices, although the ensemble does other things at other times of the year. Based on ever-increasing attendance at the RR's Meymandi Concert Hall shows, it's clear that many people have "discovered" the wonders and delights of their unique brand of music-making — and that many of these people wind up getting hooked and thus return again and again.

Anyway, the concert of December 18 was in some respects a typical RR holiday event. The hall was beautifully decked out with wreaths and garlands and bows — courtesy of the BTI folks, most likely. The Ringers themselves have a whole truckload (literally) of other stuff that is used to gussy up their concerts — aside from one of the largest collections of handbells, in various shapes and sizes, in captivity. The stage is decorated with panels on which the group's logo and various colored lights are played. There are projections on the wall above the choir loft and elsewhere in the hall. There are wrapped packages and lava lamps (yes!). And the 16 ringers — they don't all play all the time — come and go, mostly in concert attire but sometimes in outrageous outfits, of which more anon. Director David Harris leads his thoroughly-drilled players with a certain flair and keeps up a regular banter between numbers to allow for switching around of all that hardware.

And you've never lived till you've heard "The Flight of the Bumblebee" played on handbells at a clip that would make even Heifetz or Oistrakh blanch.

But mostly the concert was devoted to serious seasonal fare — music by Bach, various carols and a few purely secular but still seasonal things. The concert got underway with a much-too-heavily-amplified version of Bizet's "Farandole" in a sort of souped-up heavy metal rendition that segued to a fine arrangement for bells. A few pieces that had no direct seasonal ties — including "A Walk in the Park," an unpublished work by Karen Lakey Buckwalter (and indeed the evening's only original work, as opposed to an arrangement), and Anderson's "Fiddle-Faddle" provided breaks from the prevailing mood of the event.

There was also the much-anticipated break from holiday fare as the "Rockin' Raleigh Ringers," in tie-dyed shirts and wigs and such, and accompanied by fog and roadies, performed Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." (These departures from the RR's seasonal norm are part of the "tradition" at these concerts, and in previous years they've come at the ends of the concerts, but this time the rock segment was given before the grand finale....)

The program ended as it has for many years, with Betty B. Garee's arrangement of "God With Us for All Time" ("Veni Emmanuel") and "Silent Night," during which the hall was illuminated by battery-powered candles passed out to members of the audience. It was a longish program for young people (and perhaps for critics, too), but the substantial crowd, said to be the Ringers' largest since these concerts moved to Meymandi, would not let the players go, so there were two encores — the aforementioned "Flight of the Bumblebee" and a version of the Transiberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve in Sarajevo," thus ending on a crossover note that linked the best of the best traditions of our own Raleigh Ringers.

PS Don't believe me? Tune in UNC-TV's "NC Weekend" at 9 p.m. 12/23 for a glimpse of the Ringers, or race through the ritual unwrapping on 12/25 in time for the same station's 10 a.m. repeat of an hour's worth of music from the RR's outstanding dvd!

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