May 22, 2024

Sunday Afternoon Carillon Recitals Are Popular Attraction for Local Residents

CELEBRATING 30 YEARS: Lisa Lonie, Princeton University carillonneur, has planned a special summer season of performances by carillonneurs from all over the world. The festival, titled “Music that Paints the Silence,” marks three decades of concerts for the public outside Cleveland Tower on the Graduate College campus. (Photo by David Kelly Crow)

By Anne Levin

On most Sundays starting at 1 p.m., a sound described as “wind chimes on steroids” rings out across the area surrounding Princeton University’s Graduate College campus. On a good day, “It can go up to half a mile,” said Lisa Lonie, the woman often responsible for creating that sound.

Lonie is Princeton University’s fourth University carillonneur, and its first female. On the job since 2012, she is the principal player of the school’s 70-year-old carillon, an instrument that produces music by the striking of its 67 bronze bells — the largest of which weighs 12,880 pounds. Housed in a console room atop the Cleveland Tower, the instrument is one of only about 180 manually played carillons in North America. It was dedicated in 1927 by the University’s class of 1892, and is part of the program of University Chapel Music.

Loyal listeners who show up on the lawn outside the tower for the 45-minute concerts set up blankets, chairs, and picnics. The music they hear can range from medieval to Broadway show tunes. “We have people who come every week. Some of them call the music comforting, which for a 25-ton machine is pretty incredible,” said Lonie. “You can play it as a whisper or a thunder. It’s meditative.”

The weekly recitals are held throughout the year. From July 7 through September 1, a summer festival titled “Music that Paints the Silence” will mark the 30th anniversary of these events, with players from the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands. “We invite carillonneurs from all over the world,” Lonie said. “It’s a much more formal experience than what I do during the year. You get a printed program.”

Lonie fell in love with the carillon when she was a teenager.

“I was a member of the handbell choir at our church in Bucks County,” she said. “Our director was also a carillonneur at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge. We were performing there, and afterward we went into the tower. I was completely smitten. I went home and told my mother I didn’t want to do handbells anymore, I wanted to do this. She was very supportive. My parents really went all out to make it happen.”

Lonie began taking lessons at Valley Forge. In between sessions, she practiced at the carillon of a church in Newtown, Pa. Part of the attraction of the instrument was the fact that playing it was a solitary experience.

“I had performance anxiety, so I dreaded those piano recitals where everyone was watching me with their eyes boring in,” Lonie said. “But I still liked to perform. I was fine in an ensemble. The carillon gave me the opportunity, and the freedom, to play and not have anybody watch.”

Lonie also liked the fact that the carillon could be heard by so many people at one time. “It really is a communal instrument. It’s not confined to a concert hall where people have to come in and listen,” she said. “It’s free, and it’s live, and it brings some atmosphere of calmness to the neighborhood.”

She has been playing ever since. Her work at Princeton, which includes teaching as well as performing, is just one part of her busy schedule. Lonie is the assistant chief of staff at Haverford College. She is active in the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA), the North American Carillon School, the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, and the St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh, Pa. She has performed internationally at festivals, conferences, and national congresses of the GCNA.

There was a period in the mid 1960s during which Princeton’s carillon fell into disrepair. But it was renovated and rededicated in 1993. “The fact that the instrument was unplayable and in decay because there wasn’t anyone advocating for it until then is amazing,” said Lonie. “But it’s in a very, very good place now. The program is stable and it is well cared for.”

The only requirement for those who study with Lonie is that they have some music or keyboard background. “I don’t teach music,” she said. “So they have to know a certain amount before they come in. There are about 12 in the studio right now, and I’m really maxed out with that. I do have a wait list.”

Among them are University students of math, chemistry, and French. Townspeople study with Lonie, too. “My oldest is 81. She can climb the tower’s 137 steps, and gets herself down,” she said.

While most carillons are in churches or university settings, some are also located in parks. Longwood Gardens in Chester County, Pa., has an instrument in its chime tower. There is a carillon at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and another at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Fla. Lonie is active in efforts to include carillons in new construction in educational settings.

“When you’re laying out a campus, architects want a focal point,” she said. “Why not make it more than just eye candy? Put bells in there. Make it a manual instrument, hire someone to teach.”

Regular Sunday concerts continue through the end of June, before “Music that Paints the Silence” begins on July 7. Those who are interested in seeing the carillon can arrange to take a brief tour with Lonie at 12:45 p.m., ascending to the playing cabin [after signing a waiver]. Visit for information.

“I think it’s great that we’re located at the Graduate College, because the buildings really sock in the sound,” Lonie said. “It is a very public instrument with a distinctive sound. Everyone should hear it.”