Raleigh Ringers Repertory
by Mary Nordstrom
Raleigh Ringers' touring repertory was listed and performed as announced on the afternoon of June 13. An effective entrada burst from the loud speakers in Meymandi Concert Hall as the Raleigh Ringers, now in their 15th season, filed on stage. They took their places behind tables carefully laid out with bells and chimes of many shapes and sizes from very small to bucket-size bells that many of us had never seen until being introduced to this organization. Director David M. Harris took charge and, when the opening number was completed, announced that the "Farandole," from Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2, was arranged especially for the Raleigh Ringers by Betty Garee. The arrangement breathed new life into a familiar theme. It was delightful. Percussion effects, apparently from striking bells against pads, interested me as they presented "Dorian Dance," by Michael Joy.
A remarkable encounter of the Ringers and Director Harris with Hal H. Hopson resulted, some time ago, in the prominent composer's personal interest in the Raleigh Ringers. His composition "Tumult and Tranquility," written especially for them, was dynamically pleasing. It featured timpani effects from the large bells, contrasting with soft organ-like sounds from the choir chimes. Well-placed to contrast in character, the next number could succeed as a 21st century carousel recording. Light-hearted with a walking-pace beat more like a foxtrot, "A Walk In the Park" was written for the Ringers by Karen Lakey Buckwalter and reminded me of a recent visit to Raleigh's Pullen Park carousel.
Cathy Moklebust arranged the 17th century French folk tune "Picardy," known as "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." With its softness increasing in dynamic strength of resonance, then fading in contrast at the end, this produced still more variety in the well-built first half of the program. Whenever the lovely theme is reintroduced by various sets of bells it is as if an organist is using different stops to make the statement. The choir chimes, not to be confused with tuning forks, make sounds comparable to organ tones. Microphones were placed opposite the bells at stage right, to increase their sound through the speaker, on the left. The importance of this arrangement for sound projection was first noticed in the Mokelbust work.
A group of Japanese bell ringers gave special permission for Harris to include something not available in the United States. From Toshikazu Yoshida came a dramatic, clever arrangement of Leroy Anderson's "Fiddle-Faddle." This was pure fun because the participants pretended that the huge-sized bells wouldn't start without cable jump starters.
By the end of the program it was clear that they should save the cut-up things for future evenings' encores or simply combine all of them in an annual comedy show. The Raleigh Ringers on the whole project a serious new vehicle for composers, and I really think that, except for a light-hearted encore, the art of bell ringing stands on its own merits without trying to amuse an audience, presumably to keep them wanting more. For instance, the rock and roll routine, untitled in the program, had been funny the first year I saw it, and this was only my second live concert by the group. The colorful rag-tag costumes and wigs might have been okay for repetition on Halloween, or a separate total comedy program, but just didn't amuse me on a second spring concert afternoon. So much for my sense of humor, but I'd been there, seen that.
Bach's "Little" Fugue in G Minor, jogged us back; the serious treatment by Michael Kastner was specially provided for the Raleigh Ringers. The fugue theme intertwines beautifully, various bells playing the melody against what sounded like cathedral chimes that an organist could experiment with to approximate this arrangement. The bucket-sized bells took up the theme to end the work.
After intermission came Arthur Smith's "Dueling Banjos," arranged for Raleigh Ringers by Hart Morris and remembered from a past concert. This was another spoofing type of number that seemed to be trying hard to please the audience, which it did. In retrospect, it was in an okay position on the program. But as time went on, counting the number of comically choreographed items on the program I began to wonder, "Do these guys want to be performing artists or do they plan to audition for Comedy Central ?" (As the Ringers demonstrated throughout the country last winter, it is not a bad public relations ploy to use TV to bring interest to the art of bell ringing!)
Pleasing dissonance and dynamics characterized "Nova," by William A. Payn. It was a stretch to switch focus to this dynamic composition that deserved to have been preceded by more serious content. To me it was the outstanding work of the concert, but there hadn't been an appropriate programming build-up for its presentation. Payn is artistic consultant for the Raleigh Ringers and presumably wrote this work for his own ensemble, the Rooke Chapel Ringers of Bucknell University, since there was no asterisk denoting that the composition, like most of the others, had been written expressly for the Raleigh Ringers.
Prelude on "Herzliebster Jesu" ("Ah, Holy Jesus") was next to last on the formal program as announced by Harris from the touring repertory listed in the handout. The arrangement by Fred Gramann after Johann Cruger (1640),with credits also to Kedron ( United States Harmony, 1799), attributed to E. K Dare, also noted "Victimae paschali Laudes," a Gregorian chant for Easter Day. The finale, from Stravinsky's Firebird , arranged by Doug Smith for the Raleigh Ringers, was appropriately impressive.
Then came the encores, mostly in the Comedy Central vein. The one that got my vote, with its clever choreography, was "Flight of the Bumblebee," in which a two-legged yellow and black creature stole the impressive show.
My two cents: Raleigh Ringers can cultivate a contemporary tradition without stooping so often simply to entertain the audience. Actually, the audience may want to be challenged to enjoy the development of a relatively new vehicle for composition. Undoubtedly, many composers will continue to be inspired by Harris' artistry and lead their colleagues to this medium of expression.