Heavenly sounds from stone

Longwood Gardens presents carillonneur Janet Tebbel

3 minute read
The carillon at Longwood Gardens is a huge, complex instrument inside a stone tower. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)
The carillon at Longwood Gardens is a huge, complex instrument inside a stone tower. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)

Longwood Gardens attracts horticultural-minded visitors from all over the world. This summer—as part of its ever-increasing performing-arts offerings—Longwood also hosts another international group: eight carillonneurs from the US and Europe. The series (a festival of sorts, though not billed as such) started with a rewarding June 9 concert by Philadelphia carillonneur Janet Tebbel.

Tebbel played a perfectly calibrated 30-minute concert exploring natural themes—moon and stars, heaven and earth—on Longwood’s famous carillon. Commissioned in 2000 from Royal Eijsbouts in the Netherlands, it’s an enormously complex modern instrument sitting atop a stone medieval-like tower with foot-thick walls. The juxtaposition of technology and those ancient peals made for a satisfying and thoughtful afternoon treat.

Meet the carillon

A carillon is nothing like normal bells. It’s unusual, intricate, and the world’s heaviest instrument, vastly different from the pale electronic imitations that often ring out over places of worship. Longwood’s six-foot-long keyboard (62 wooden batons) and 26 pedals control the 62 bells that span five octaves. The largest and lowest bell—the B-flat (called the bourdon)—is six feet in diameter and weighs 6,908 pounds, while the highest C bell is a lightweight at six inches and 20 pounds. In total, the rank of bells weighs 38,148 pounds, so those stone walls are needed for support.

But when Tebbel played, any sense of weight disappeared as ethereal sounds floated across pond, fountain, and garden. The bronze bells (80 percent copper and 20 percent tin) carry a minor-third overtone and have a long natural decay—both qualities that make them a unique aural experience and reinforce their otherworldliness.

A savvy program

To appeal to Longwood’s varied audience (some there for the concert, others just passing by), Tebbel chose a savvy mix of classical and popular music along with two works composed for the instrument. She opened with the billowing Walking on Clouds by contemporary Belgian composer and carillonneur Geert D’hollander (b. 1955), who played at Longwood last season. A program highlight was Stargazing by Frank Della Penna (b. 1950), a work built on an ascending minor-sounding scale—but it might just be those ever-present overtones. The piece begins gently, increasing in intensity and dying away to a single al niente note that felt like it might float on the wind forever.

A welcoming carillonneur: Janet Tebbel. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)
A welcoming carillonneur: Janet Tebbel. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)

The three popular works on the program, the ubiquitous Disney theme When You Wish upon a Star (arranged by Richard Giszczak); What a Wonderful World (arranged by Sue Magassy); and A Whole New World (arranged by Audrey Dye); seemed less suited to the aura of the carillon.

Tebbel’s classical offerings included Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (arranged by Roy Kroezen) and a delicate Ira Schroeder arrangement of Franz Shubert’s tone poem The Stars. But the most memorable piece was a striking rendition of Edvard Grieg’s Song of the Mountaineer. Arranged by Ronald Barnes, the work encapsulated the mystery and power of climbing and height, especially evocative issuing from the 61-foot-high Chimes Tower.

More to come

After the concert, the carillon (generally closed to the public) was open for viewing, and small groups climbed its 82 steps. There Tebbel, personable and welcoming, sat in a wooden aerie with the feel of a tiny house. She gave an informative overview of the beautiful instrument, showing how she played the wooden batons (with her fists) and noting that the long decay and ever-present overtones require a special kind of compositional focus.

Most carillons are in Europe, especially Belgium and the Netherlands, but there are about 190 in the United States. Tebbel’s home keyboard is at First United Methodist Church of Germantown, where she has played the 50-bell carillon since 1979. The artist explained that it’s now the high season for carillonneurs, and so Longwood is presenting seven more carillon concerts over the next two months. Some upcoming artists are from this region and some are from Europe, but these summertime offerings could not have had a more auspicious start than Tebbel’s lovely and well-chosen musical afternoon.

What, When, Where

Carillonneur Janet Tebbel in a program of contemporary, popular, and classical works on June 9, 2019, at Longwood Gardens, 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square. (610) 388-1000 or

Longwood’s restrooms and many amenities are ADA-compliant, but the garden features (including the carillon) are scattered over many acres. Scooters, strollers, and wheelchairs are available for rent; patrons can bring their own personal mobility device. There are drop-off lanes and accessible parking. For more information on accessibility, call or click here.

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