Handbell ringing has its fans and participants – less so than it used to, probably, but they’re there all right. And quite a few of them gathered at LSO St Luke’s on Friday evening to hear a concert by North Carolina’s Raleigh Ringers. Like choral singing, handbell ringing travelled across the pond with various settlers, and it’s probably more prevalent in the USA than it is here – it isn’t unusual to find handbell choirs as part of the worship set-up in American churches. And if there is such a thing as ‘The Berlin Philharmonic’ of handbell choirs, the Raleigh Ringers are it, so it’s worth attending their only concert so far in the UK, simply to hear the professionals at work.
There were over a hundred handbells on stage, from the sort of polite tinkle that may have been used for summoning servants in the past, to vast aluminium bells (at this size, casting them in bell metal makes them impossible to play) the size of 1970s Habitat lampshades. Added to this were nearly as many chimes (a range of clapper-played tuning forks, again varying from a few inches long to vast frame-mounted planks) a tambourine, a gong and a drum kit – all played by 18 people and conducted peerlessly by David Harris, the ensemble’s musical director.
Although some well-known composers have included handbell parts in their works (John Tavener, for example), by and large the repertoire is arrangements of existing pieces, or specially composed works by player-composers working in the field. This repertoire was very much represented at the concert with a mixture of ‘classical’ arrangements (the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg 3, Vierne’s Carillon de Longpont, the first movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony); jazz arrangements (Yakety Sax – made famous as the Benny Hill theme tune – Zez Confrey’s Dizzy Fingers), some lollipops – such as a medley of British rock classics from Bohemian Rhapsody to Pinball Wizard via Nights in White Satin, Lecuona’s Malagueña, Leroy Anderson’s The Irish Washerwoman; and one of some 150 compositions written for the Raleigh Ringers, Karen Buckwalter’s Reverie, a charmingly textured piece that clearly has its roots in the soft rock of praise-band music.
It was an engaging evening, and the sonorities of the bells made for a special and unusual listening experience – particularly the theremin-like pure-note qualities of the chimes, and the big muffled bass-notes of the large bells. The choir was exciting to watch – the choreography and simple incidental movement as an arpeggio passed up the line of bells was entrancing – and the arrangements were clever, witty and impressive (the finale, an arrangement of the last section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, was breathtaking, and truly exciting). David Harris introduced each item – which made for an interesting glance into the world of bell-ringing (as well as giving time for the players to rearrange their bells). All that said, it is still clearly a niche activity. Many of the audience (as remarked above) were players themselves, and the atmosphere was generally one of a sci-fi convention – a group of slightly nerdy people come to engage in a bit of hero-worship (where else would an audience member wander onto the stage at the end of the concert murmuring “Ooh, a Whitechapel cup-bell”?). Next time they’re in town, it’s worth a visit – but, for the non-ringer, it’s probably not something to put in the diary for regular attendance.