Artists often have to fight back against preconceived notions about their music, but for the Raleigh Ringers – performing their annual holiday shows Saturday and Sunday at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh – the battle begins with their name.
To many a handbell choir concert brings to mind church groups gathering on Christmas Eve to knock the dust off of an old set of bells to ring out the same old spiritual standards that they’ve played for the past few decades. As David Harris, the Music Director of the Ringers since its inception in 1990, explains it, the group’s standard of quality has become its main weapon against this line of thinking.
“I hate to put it this way, but people are used to mediocre handbell choirs that don’t really put on performances like we do,” Harris says. “I have heard people say often that they basically had to drag their spouse to one of our shows, but once they give it a chance, they become fans for life.”
Harris says handbells are slowly but surely gaining in popularity with musicians.
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“I think they have always been seen as a novelty sort of thing, because they are very unique in that each bell plays one single note, and there is nothing else like that in the music world. ... To do what we do is different in that way, but to me it makes it more rewarding. You are forced to work together as a team, and if you pull it off correctly there is a great sense of accomplishment.”
The Ringers’ flawless, year-round performances aren’t the group’s only sign of accomplishment. Under Harris’ direction, the choir has released six albums and two DVDs of holiday concerts, with the first – “One Winter Evening at Meymandi” (2003) – being broadcast on more than 250 public television stations around the country, including UNC-TV. The success of that first program led to a working relationship with UNC-TV that Harris says has helped the Ringers grow in popularity outside of their hometown.
“We brought our first recording to them, thinking it would be interesting local programming during the holiday season, and it has gone on to be seen in 45 states over the years,” Harris says. “We weren’t really interested in doing another recorded project, but four years ago UNC-TV approached us in regards to recording another special for them, but this time as a joint venture. They brought in their own recording crews and helped with expenses. They have helped us tremendously in being recognized outside of the state.”
That second special – “A December Tradition” (2013) – could take inspiration for its title from either the choir members’ practice routines or from their fans’ reactions to seeing the annual Meymandi tickets go on sale. Given the crowds that show up for the group’s holiday shows, one wonders why the choir performs only one weekend in winter instead of packing December with shows.
“What we do with our December calendar is dedicate two entire weekends out of the month toward performing,” says Harris. “One of those weekends is out of town – we just played both Rocky Mount and Washington, N.C., as well as Portsmouth, Va. – and then the other one is dedicated to our Meymandi concerts.”
Harris says that recently a local brewery requested a performance at one of its gatherings.
“I would of course love to play it, but this particular request is unfortunately for the same weekend of our Raleigh shows. For us, it takes us a little bit longer to prepare for shows than just a two weeks notice, as there are 18 members. We know that there is a demand for our time during the holidays, but we figured out the best way to handle it is to just tell people to catch us at Meymandi if they want to see us during the holidays.”
What: Raleigh Ringers 2016 Holiday Concert
When: 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
The Raleigh Ringers specials “One Winter Evening at Meymandi” and “Holiday Handbells” air on UNC-TV and its digital channel N.C. Channel throughout December. Check the schedule at schedule.unctv.org for dates and times.