Bells are ringing at UC’s Carillon New Music Festival

Sat May 26, 2018 at 9:56 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Audience members outside Rockefeller Chapel watch performers via video at the Rockefeller Carillon New Music Festival Friday night. Photo: L. Johnson

The University of Chicago has long been a mecca for new music, most notably via Ralph Shapey’s Contemporary Chamber Players, which later evolved into the long-running Contempo series.

UC notched another musical first with the opening of the Rockefeller Carillon New Music Festival Friday night.

The brainchild of Rockefeller Chapel dean Elizabeth Davenport and University carillonneur Joey Brink, the ambitious two-day event is the first local festival devoted entirely to contemporary music for carillon. Over 40 works will be performed through Saturday night, including sixteen world premieres. Apart from a Bach transcription, all the music was composed in the 21st century, 95% in the past five years.

Each work was performed on the mighty 72-bell armada of the celebrated Laura Spelman Rockefeller carillon. Designed by the Gillet & Johnston foundry of Croydon, England, Rockefeller Chapel’s carillon was installed in 1932 and extensively restored and renovated in 2006-2008.

The tricky logistics of presenting and viewing a carillon performance made for an unusual concert experience–aesthetically pleasant if slightly surreal. A large screen was set up with live video relay from the claustrophobic carillon quarters high in the Rockefeller bell tower; the audience watched the performers from outside, listening on chairs or seated on the lawn, summer festival style. Even with the fitful rumble of trucks and buses down Woodlawn Avenue, the event came off largely without a hitch.

The marquee event of the first night was the world premiere of Ripple Effects by UC’s Augusta Read Thomas for the occasion. Dedicated to the indefatigable Davenport, the title, said the composer in a brief introduction, reflected the popular Rockefeller dean’s warmly radiating effect on others.

Just five minutes long, Thomas’s work was effective enough, even if the musical concept proved more intriguing than the actual results. Scored for four carillonneurs (Joey Brink, Frans Haagen, Ellen Dickinson and Tiffany Ng)–with several others assisting Friday night–Ripple Effects starts as a duo and quickly adds other hands and feet, culminating in all 72 bells being run together (possibly for the first time ever). The effect was less spectacular than one might think, though as Thomas noted the climactic coda was “earthy and not flashy,” reflecting its dedicatee.

If Thomas’s work got the most attention, the ensuing recital by four carillonneurs showed the variety and versatility of compositional approaches for the modern keyboard-led bells.

Joey Brink led off with two works. The world premiere of Geert D’hollander’s Introduction & Aria juxtaposed Brink’s jazzily chromatic carillon passages against Riley Leitch’s  trombone, though the latter’s sound was unevenly projected. Brink’s own impressionistic Moonflower Faeries proved more striking in its gentle, shimmering tones.

Tiffany Ng brought jumpy athleticism to Ken Ueno’s Campanology and Laura Steenberge’s The Seer. The latter work adds electronics to the live carillon playing, creating a mysterious effect.

The world premiere of Maria Kaoutzani’s Faro, proved effective in its wide dynamic contrasts with Frans Haagen’s performance marking the tolling bells against high wind chimes-like sonorities. The Dutch carillonneur also made the oddball electronics of Tatatata by Jacob ter Veldhuis register, as the rhythmic vocal sampling builds up an insistent momentum.

Ellen Dickinson was the final soloist Friday night. In her hands, Brink’s Invocation had a quiet hypnotic power, moving inexorably from slow arpeggios to a more energized, rhythmic section. The world premiere of Alison Yun-Fei Jiang’s Pluie (Rain) ended the evening on a quietly atmospheric note; its distant bells and subtle colors proved haunting and evocative,  played with great sensitivity by Dickinson.

The festival opened earlier with performances by four students from UC’s Guild of Carillonneurs (Joshua Kaufman, Michael Sloyan, Xibai (Sylvia) Wang and Elsa Mundt. All were impressive musicians but Mundt stood out for her performance of Jessica Wells’ Moonfire. This distinctive electroacoustic work conjures up a vast array of sounds from ominous alarm bells to eerie and unsettling high sonorities, all rendered with sensitive expression and virtuosic intensity by Mundt.

The Rockefeller Carillon New Music Festival continues Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Bells are ringing at UC’s Carillon New Music Festival”

  1. Posted May 29, 2018 at 12:56 am by Lyn Fuller

    Congratulations on performing Moonfire by Jess Wells. Just letting you know that Jess has another in the pipeline. Wonderful that so much contemporary music for carillon is on the agenda.

Leave a Comment