Raleigh Ringers: Musical Skill and Diversity
by Martha A. Fawbush
June 1, 2008, Raleigh, NC: The Raleigh Ringers, whose great skill and musically diverse programs always bring out enthusiastic audiences of local handbell ringers from area churches as well as people who love the sounds of the great variety of handbells in an excellent professional organization, repeated their past successes in Meymandi Hall in the first of their eight summer concerts. Sixteen ringers, conducted by David M. Harris, Music Director, provided two hours of beautifully played music arranged for handbells of all sizes, of compositions from the classical and folk repertoires as well as modern popular tunes. The appreciative audience reluctantly let them go only after several encores.
The Raleigh Ringers use handbells of all shapes and sizes, from the familiar small bells in the highest register seen most often in church groups, to the largest of all bells which sound notes in the lowest registers. In addition, the Ringers also use choir chimes, which look much like tuning forks and produce sustained pitches with the sound of organ tones, and felt-covered mallets, which when used to strike the largest bells create a dampened sound that provides the bass rhythms needed for music from all repertoires. When the Ringers use all their bells in many of the more complicated pieces they play, audience members are entertained as much by watching the performers work, often with several bells at once, as by the music they hear.
In any music they perform the Raleigh Ringers show themselves to be sophisticated, capable musicians who can play any arrangement for handbells, no matter the harmonies, tempo or technical difficulties they encounter. In this concert the arrangements from the standard classical repertoire and folk-music repertoires were often lovely and always exciting, designed to display all the players’ skills. The opening piece, the showy “Tempest,” by Kevin McChesney, began first as an electronic fanfare, during which the Ringers came on stage and performed the rest of the piece with the full complement of bells. Then the Ringers turned to a demanding arrangement of Vittorio Monti’s “Csardas,” filled with vivacity and color, and with abrupt shifts in tempo and dynamics typical of folk dance. The speed of much of the piece was stunning; it was so much faster than any tempo anyone expects from handbells. Another well-known and beloved folk song, “Greensleeves,” arranged by the popular Cathy Moklebust, was one of the loveliest pieces on the program. It had a very slow, deliberate tempo difficult to maintain. The mid-range and upper-register bells played together the melody and rich harmony of the arrangement, and the lower bells provided the strong, sustained notes of harmonic support.
Among the classical music on the program, the “Passacaglia” from Handel’s seventh suite for harpsichord and transposed for handbells by William H. Griffin was one of the most outstanding pieces, with its rapid scale passages in mid-range bells. Another moving piece, a prelude on the chorale melody “O Herzliebster Jesu,” arranged by Fred Gramann, held the listeners’ attention with its melody in the mid-range bells and ostinato lines in high-register bells and the bass bells.
There were also several other pieces of classical origin and one or two of modern origins that owe much to classical style. All of them were excellent arrangements deserving of my praise from both compositional and performance standpoints. But the most beautiful of all the classical pieces was “Tristesse,” Chopin’s piano etude Op. 10, No. 3, transposed for handbells by Keith Burt. This work, with its melodic sweetness stated in the mid-range bells, is characterized by delicacy and the rubato of Chopin’s original composition, and all listeners could hear clearly each musical line in the harmonic texture.
For a great number of the audience, however, the highlights of the program were the rock tunes “Hotel California” and “Pinball Wizard.” The first of these, arranged by Marcia Murphy, was a pleasure for the “Rockin’ Raleigh Ringers,” who adopted the suitable rock style and costumes necessary to bring the piece to life. The arrangement makes it possible for the bells to recall the instrumental sounds of the best-selling recording by the Eagles, with the high bells stating the melody and the lowest bells providing the harmony and rhythm of the bass instruments in the original piece. The audience loved all this as well as Murphy’s arrangement of Pete Townshend’s “Pinball Wizard,” in which the bass bells get to show off their ability to sound like electric guitars and the bass players’ use of the felt-covered mallets to make the rhythms clear and driving.
Of the encores, the most impressive was the Martha Lynn Thomas arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with its unbroken lines of dizzyingly rapid notes in the high bells and the equally fast flying mallets on the low bells to enunciate the rhythmic bass line. Bells should not be able to do this — but they did.