Carillonneurs to Converge in Dallas

Highland Park United Methodist Church’s bourdon, midrange, and treble bells hang in the belfry. (Photo: Chirag Sainju)

Late one afternoon, John Acker unlocked the back door of Highland Park United Methodist Church, walked through the sanctuary, climbed the stairs to the balcony, then mounted a perilously narrow 38-step spiral staircase to reach the carillon keyboard that controls 48 bronze bells in the belfry.

In 1984, when it was installed, the four-octave Porter Memorial Carillon was the largest in Texas. Its lowest bass bell, the bourdon, weighs 2 1/2 tons and highest treble bell, 28 pounds.

Replacement of the instrument cast in the three-centuries-old foundry Fonderie Paccard would cost an estimated three quarters of a million dollars.

With reading glasses on and worn yellowed music in place, Acker’s feet struck the pedals that operate the lowest and heaviest bells and his hands, barreled in a fist, punched the baton-shaped wooden keys to pull bell clappers above into ringing the Bach favorite Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring for the delight of anyone within a mile radius.

The carillon’s superior expressive response to the performer’s whispered pianissimo or dramatic, resounding fortissimo is legendary among carillonneurs.

“The majestic sounds of this beautiful instrument guide our worship and lift our prayers to the Lord,” said parishioner U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R–Dallas.

FROM LEFT: Hear carillonneurs Carmen McMillan, Gretchen Ryan, John Acker, and Mary Dibble play the 48-bell carillon weekdays around noon and 5-6 p.m. most afternoons. (Photo: Chirag Sainju)

Oct. 20 and 21, HPUMC will host the 25th anniversary of the Texas Regional Carillon Conference. Twenty-five carillonneurs from across the United States and Canada will come for the privilege of performing on one of only 185 instruments of its kind in North America.

During the conference, the church’s regular carillonneurs will step aside because, as Acker said, “We get to play it every week.”

Bring chairs and blankets to a public recital from 5 to 6:15 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Margaret Jonsson Garden.

Featured recitalist George Gregory, carillonneur for San Antonio’s Central Christian Church for nearly 60 years, will play works by Texas composers written especially for him and the church’s Nordan Memorial Carillon. He’s including compositions by Alice Gomez that display her rhythmic style, such as Tango (1999) and The Bells of Cuzco (1995), named after the one-time Andes capital of the Inca Empire. Those will be followed by Lawrence Weiner’s late-period work Intonus I & II (1984), which Gregory describes as “more melodic than most dissonant pieces.” Mary Weldon Leahy’s lush romantic Nocturne (1963) will provide a strong stylistic contrast. Then Dan Welcher’s mournful Fantasy: In Memoriam Anwar Sadat (1982) will simulate gun shots in one section with three bells clashing together. Theron Kirk’s festive Introduction and Tower Toccata (1971) and his Hjemstavn Variants (1982), based on a Danish folksong, conclude Gregory’s program.

Second recitalist Richard Strauss is an inspiration to carillonneurs. With a degree in sociology and no musical background, he came to study the carillon and succeeded his teacher, Ronald Barnes, as cathedral carillonneur at the Washington National Cathedral.

His program will draw from American composer Gary White’s modern but melodic repertoire for the instrument along with rarely heard French Christmas music.

“The weather at Christmas is usually not conducive to outdoor listening,” said Strauss, “so I thought I’d bring a preseason sampling.”

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