The carillon bells in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. (Photography by Robert Kozloff/courtesy University of Chicago News Office)
A world of bells
A momentous summer concert season for Rockefeller’s carillon—and a summer-long farewell to UChicago’s longtime carillonneur.
It looked like it was going to rain—in fact it did, if only lightly and for a few minutes. Even when it was dry, the overcast skies did not seem conducive to picnics or outdoor concerts. And yet, several dozen people sat on the lawn outside Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on a gray Sunday evening in mid-July. There were older folks who brought blankets and wine, young couples who brought children in strollers, and a few students who brought only themselves. They had come for a performance of the Rockefeller carillon, a giant apparatus of 72 small bells housed in the chapel tower. It was installed in 1932 and, with some renovations in the interim, has remained in the tower ever since. As part of the Bells of Summer series put on by Rockefeller staff, carillonneurs from around the world are invited to play songs from their home countries on Rockefeller’s instrument every Sunday evening. The series lasts for 10 weeks, the equivalent to an academic quarter in which the only class is in bells. This year’s series marks the 50th anniversary of the internationally themed concerts, which run through August 23. That final concert will feature Wylie Crawford, who is retiring this year after 31 years as University carillonneur. It might be tempting, then, to make this summer all about him, but he’s not the type to hog the spotlight. In fact, Crawford says, he is honored by the talented musicians performing in this series. “I take pride in that,” he told the Chicago Maroon earlier this year, “I want to have this instrument played by the best performers that I can find.” On the evening I attended, July 26, the visiting carilloneur was Olesya Rostovskaya, a Russian musician whose repertoire of obscure instruments also includes the theremin, an electric musical device. Rostovskaya was situated high in the chapel’s tower, but listeners could watch her through a live video feed on a small TV just inside the chapel door. The act of playing the carillon is a visual spectacle; its keyboard-like apparatus is massive, requiring a level of dexterity and concentration that’s sure to make even a grand organ player sweat a little. Rostovskaya played a selection of Russian songs, some composed for the carillon, others arrangements of familiar classics. The scores of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff jump off the set list to the more casual listener but are featured no more prominently than the original compositions by Rostovskaya herself. Whether they be Orthodox hymns or the Nutcracker, Rostovskaya corrals and shapes each piece to her style, her sound. But the soundscape during the concert doesn’t belong to her completely. Cars pull out of the Harper Center parking lot down the block, a small child cries after tripping on some stone stairs, somewhere on the lawn a champagne cork pops. The concert is called the Bells of Summer, but listeners are treated to all the sounds of summer, and it’s hard to imagine that isn’t what the organizers had in mind.


Wylie Crawford performs Pachelbel's Canon in D on the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Chapel Carillon.