Raleigh Ringers Bring Christmas Delights to Large Audience of Handbell Enthusiasts
by Martha A. Fawbush
December 21, 2008, Raleigh, NC: As they have done many times, the Raleigh Ringers on Saturday afternoon led a large audience in the celebration of music of the season. Everyone present enjoyed the wealth of traditional music, both sacred and secular, which the Ringers, conducted by David M. Harris, their amiable Music Director, played with their usual energy, pleasure, and skill. Their efforts were also more appealing to many in the audience because of the brilliant light show provided by some fine Meymandi Hall technicians as well as a rock tune arranged for bells, the timely appearance of Santa Claus and the Grinch, and Lucy and Linus from Charlie Brown’s neighborhood. The large number of youth and children especially appreciated these visitations.
"Ah, but Madame Critic, what about you?" some of the audience may well ask. Didn’t you enter wholeheartedly into the musical frivolity? Or, as we suspected, are you tainted by your relationship to the aforementioned Grinch, or perhaps the infamous Ebeneezer Scrooge?
My response: I abjure any physical or spiritual connection with those two Christmas-bashers. It is only the distractions caused by the appearance of those famous personages I mentioned above that brought out the Grinchy side of my critical nature. But my possible link with the old Grinch did not prevent me from appreciating the artfully-arranged music and superb playing of the Raleigh Ringers. From the beginning to the end of the concert, the marvelous variety of music the Ringers presented and the repeated instances of technical virtuosity they displayed in many of the numbers would be hard to improve upon.
The impressive opening piece was a combination of two pieces arranged by Hart Morris: “An Angel Came Down,” beginning with a recorded sustained murmur of bass bells, which increased until the Ringers were in their places on stage playing the lovely carol, which then metamorphosed into “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” a brilliantly played medley of carols including joyful treatments of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Joy to the World,” a gentle rendering of “Silent Night,” and a concluding, dazzling playing of “Carol of the Bells” requiring both an unbelievably fast tempo and clarity of each bell note.
After their fine playing of the well-known Elvis Presley Christmas favorite “Blue Christmas,” another Morris arrangement and an audience-pleaser, the Ringers turned to the spirited, quite difficult “Csardas,” arranged by Toshikazu Yoshida for 190 bells, almost double the number the Ringers normally use. The repeated shifts in tempos from slow to dizzyingly fast in this folk dance and the virtuosity of the Ringers’ manipulation of all those bells, including the choir chimes with their organ-like sustained tones, made this performance the highlight of the first half. Then came “Jingle Bells,” highlighted by bass bell players tossing their mallets back and forth, and the appearance of Santa Clause, who attempted to deliver presents but was chased across the stage by the Grinch. While the bell merriment continued, Santa took one last trip across the stage doing Rockette-like kicks, to the delight of the audience. The final number before intermission was Handel’s harpsichord Passacaglia from his Seventh Suite, translated for bells by William H. Griffin. In this piece the high bells were again required to play many notes rapidly and also to insert a number of trills without slowing the tempo, while the bass bell players, moving around each other to get to the bells they needed, had a choreography all their own.
The second half of the concert had the predominantly mellow sound of Charlie Brown’s Christmas, but first came the Ringers’ lovely Hart Morris arrangement of “Boughs of Holly,” a new take on “Deck the Halls” sweetened up with modern jazz harmonies and rhythms. Vince Guaraldi’s three pieces; “Skating,” “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Linus and Lucy” all arranged by Hart Morris from the favorite story of how Charlie Brown and the Peanut kids discovered what Christmas is all about, realized fully the now-wistful, now merry quality of the music of Charlie Brown’s magical Christmas experience. The images of Linus and Lucy, appearing on the floor, stage right, while the Ringers played the piece named for them, accentuated the mischievous nature of these two very different characters and evoked delighted laughter in the audience. But the music alone would have been quite enough.
Then the Raleigh Ringers took time out from making traditional bell music and became the Rockin’ Raleigh Ringers in an over-the-top treatment of Keith Burt’s arrangement of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” All the Ringers left the stage to change into suitably funky costumes replete with fuzzy, rainbow-colored headdresses and extremely bright clothing of many colors emphasizing the modern rock style of this piece. Although the numerous young people in the audience hollered with delight, I kept wondering where I had been transported to. Oh well, maybe I am a Grinch!
Thankfully, the Rockin’ Raleigh Ringers departed the stage and the players I expected to see returned to play the satisfying Morris arrangement of “Good King Joy” ("Good King Wenceslas") and “Joy to the World,” and then turned to a beautiful treatment of Franz Gruber’s “Stille Nacht” by Betty Garee. At this point the audience became more thoughtful, listening to the sweetness of the bells and turning on the battery-powered candles they had been given upon entering the hall. Soon all lights were out except for the candles, and for many of us the wonder of Christmas, so beautifully conveyed in the old German carol, filled the big room.
The Ringers obliged the eager listeners with two encores, the well-known “Wizards in Winter,” and “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” Although both numbers displayed one more time the skill of these superb players, I left the theatre recalling the magic of Christmas music well played and thoroughly enjoyed.