Ring the bells
City carillonneur ready for baroque concert in Baker Park
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When he makes the Baker Park bells chime, John Widmann keeps the door open. The Frederick city carillonneur knows that people are curious about the sounds that come from the big stone tower. Sometimes it's Bach. Other times it's "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Widmann takes requests.
On a sunny Monday morning, a little redheaded girl on a scooter stops to say hi. So do her mother, uncle and baby cousin. Widmann invites them all up the Joseph Dill Baker Carillon's twisting metal staircase that leads to a small room. He sits down
on a bench in front of an instrument that looks like an organ. But instead of white and black keys, it has small wooden batons. Sheet music for Isaac Albeniz's "Leyenda" is in front of him. As his fists fly across the keyboard, the two adults smile and the girl stares in wonder.
This is what Widmann has done since 1992. He also plays the organ at Frederick Presbyterian Church and teaches music at Tuscarora Elementary School, but his position as Frederick's carillonneur sets him apart from other area musicians.
"You're playing for whoever is out there, and that's kind of exciting," Widmann says. "Sometimes it appears that no one's out there, but they're out there. It will be pouring rain and I'll play. Days later, people will see me at the grocery store and say that they liked a song I played. There's always somebody listening."
On Sunday, Widmann will play a concert as part of the "Frederick Goes Baroque" festival. He plans to take on pieces by Bach, Matthias van den Gheyn and Willem de Fesch. The 45-minute program, which begins just a couple of hours after his regular monthly concert, is sponsored by the Frederick Chorale. The songs are mostly transcribed from works written for other instruments.
"It's very rare to find old original carillon music from that period because most of the carillonneurs improvised," he says. "They knew melodies and played around with those melodies on the keyboard, but nothing was written down."
A lot has changed in the last 19 years. The city of Frederick used to pay him to play one concert a week, and shelled out $350,000 for a much-needed renovation in 1995. The number of bells increased from 23 to 49, allowing Widmann to play more complex pieces. He estimates this improvement would cost close to $1 million today. Now, only a concert on the first Sunday of each month remains, and occasional guest artist recitals are no more.
Despite the cutbacks, Widmann loves the gig. The Chambersburg, Pa., native began playing the carillon in 1986. He played organ and earned a music degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but this did not fully prepare him to become a carillonneur. He studied at the Washington National Cathedral and underwent a grueling audition process to become part of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. The tryout included a 30-minute taped audition and a full concert. Only a few colleges, including Missouri State University and the University of Michigan, offer carillon programs. Many who are passionate about the instrument study in Europe.
"All the carillons like this one are mechanical, so there's no power involved," Widmann explains. "So the power that moves the clappers into the bell is all in my fist and lower arm."
Widmann took over the Baker Park bells for Dr. Galen Brooks. He had talked to Brooks about playing the carillon before he moved. But the call never came. Then, an opportunity finally arrived.
"He was leaving town and he left the key on my doorstep and a message on my answering machine," Widmann recalls. "The job was mine. He said all along that he was going to have me come substitute for him, and I was just kind of given the job."
At the bottom of the spiral staircase, a practice carillon gives Widmann an opportunity to try pieces without letting the entire city hear him make mistakes. The sound and volume is similar to a xylophone. But he can't play too long. Widmann points to the side of his hand.
"Any carillonneur needs to be careful because you end up with blisters along the sides of your pinkies," he says. "I've got calluses. I haven't felt the sides of my pinkies for a long time."
He doesn't need to practice his last song. After demonstrating a Bach piece, Widmann plays "The Star Spangled Banner."
"That's how I finish every concert," he says. "When I play that, everyone close to here knows that I'm done."
-When: 3 p.m. Sunday
-Where: Baker Park, West Second & Bentz streets, Frederick