The bells of the Botanic Garden
The four-octave Theodore C. Butz Memorial Carillon at the Chicago Botanic Garden. | Photo courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe
7 p.m. Mondays, through Sept. 3
Preconcert carillon tours and demonstrations 5:30-6:30 p.m. (every 15 minutes).
Admission is free; parking is $20 per car
See www.chicagobotanic.org/carillon or call (847) 835-5440
Updated: July 4, 2012 4:58PM
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s carillon concert series, a tradition since 1986, is in full ring. Every Monday night through Sept. 3, the Garden will be alive with the uniquely thrilling sound of bells, 48 cup-shaped bronze bells, to be exact, each forged in Holland.
On a recent and rapturously beautiful evening, Tim Steep, one of a distinguished roster of carillonneurs performing at the Garden this summer, performed a selection of pieces ranging from classical and Scott Joplin syncopations to the Broadway standard “The Impossible Dream.”
“People love hearing a piece of music they recognize,” he says. He is quick to add, “Every song can be played (on a carillon), but not every song should be.” This from a man who has played Lady Gaga on the bells.
A carillon is a collection of bells played manually on a keyboard that resembles that of a piano, but with identical-looking wooden levers that resemble batons instead of keys, which the performer manipulates with his or her fists.
In addition, there are pedal keys. The Garden’s four-octave Theodore C. Butz Memorial Carillon, located in the landmark tower on Evening Island, is one of only five carillons in Illinois. There are upward of 180 in North America, according to the Guild of Carilloneurs in North America. (Steep is a member of its board of directors.)
With their unique skill set, carilloneurs live a “got bells, will travel” existence. Steep performs regularly on the Millennium Carillon in Naperville and at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago.
Talent scheduled to appear at the Garden in the coming weeks include Stephan Burton (July 9), who studied the instrument at Brigham Young University; Anna Kasprzycka (July 16) from Gdansk, Poland; and Robert Grogan (July 23), who plays and teaches carillon in Washington, D.C.
“Carilloneurs tend to move around a lot because we are a limited number of people,” Steep says. “The nice thing about that is that it gives hometown audiences a chance to hear players from other places.”
A special feature of the concert series is the pre-concert tour of the carillon, which takes place every 15 minutes between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Visitors are invited to climb the 17 steps of the tower’s spiral staircase to stand around the impressive instrument, which is located beneath the bells, the heaviest of which weighs two-and-a-half tons.
On this night, Steep demonstrates how he coaxes a melody out of the bells with fists and feet. One of the challenges, he tells one group, is that depending on the breeze, the sound of the carillon can literally be gone with the wind (the Botanic Garden recommends that the best place to hear the bells is the lawn in front of the McKinley Pavilion).
Another challenge is that unlike a piano, there is no damper pedal that would stop a bell’s ringing once it has been struck.
One doesn’t have to have experience playing a keyboard instrument to master the carillon, but it does help.
As part of its curriculum of continuing education classes, the Garden offers carillon lessons on an indoor practice carillon keyboard and pedalboard donated by the Butz Foundation. It is connected to a computer that renders synthesized bell sounds. For more information on the class, call (847) 835-8261.