For musicians Edward Nassor and Frank Steijns, preparing to play their chosen instrument is a little more complicated than pulling a violin out of a case or sitting down at a piano. It involves more cardio, too. They are carillonneurs and the first part of any performance involves ascending a tall bell tower.
Both of them played last Thursday at the rededication of the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington. When I caught up with them, I was still a little winded from climbing the stairs to the top of the 127-foot tower.
“During the pandemic we were the only musicians who could perform,” said Frank, 51, who had come from Maastricht in the Netherlands to entertain an American audience. “We have so much distance to the audience. Especially in Holland, the carillon was suddenly an instrument for everybody. It was the only instrument people could go to concerts of because it was outdoors.”
The Netherlands Carillon stands between the Marine Corps War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. It was dedicated in 1960, a gift from the Dutch people in gratitude for the United States’ help during World War II. It’s been silent the past few years while undergoing an extensive renovation. The tower’s 1,748 steel panels were removed. Close to 800 had to be replaced; the rest were refurbished and reinstalled.
Three new bells were cast at Dutch bell foundry Royal Eijsbouts, where the 50 old bells were given a tuneup.
“This instrument was my first love, my first carillon job,” said Edward, 64. “Now it’s a brand new instrument. We will find the appropriate repertoire for it, and I can’t wait.”
How does someone become a carillonneur? For Edward, the story started in music school at Virginia Commonwealth University. He decided he wanted to study all of the keyboard instruments: piano, organ, harpsichord, synthesizer … carillon. Carillon? Edward wasn’t sure what that last one was.
“My adviser said it was some kind of keyboard instrument,” said Edward, who lives in Fairfax County and also teaches music at Merritt Academy. “As soon as I heard the sound, I realized it was unique and different. And how many keyboards do you get to play with your fists?”
The carillon isn’t just a workout for the legs. Coaxing sound from it looks like playing whack-a-mole. Large wooden keys stick out from the carillon’s keyboard. They’re attached to wires and pulleys that set in motion the hammers that strike the bronze bells. Depressing those keys requires a fair amount of oomph. The palms on Edward’s and Frank’s hands are covered in calluses.
“It’s not without danger, as you can see,” said Frank, showing me a tiny cut on a little finger. “My father was a carillonneur. He used to wear little leather things on his little fingers to prevent him from hurting himself. I like to do the real thing.”
Frank was 10 when his father took him into the carillon tower at Maastricht’s city hall.
“I was looking down at all these people and I thought, ‘I could do this,’ ” said Frank. “The only thing I changed was the repertoire.”
Father and son played atop a building dating to 1664. Frank’s late father, Mathieu, favored music that fit the ancient tower: baroque.
“But no one was looking up,” said Frank. “I thought, ‘When I’m going to be the carillonneur, I’m going to change the repertoire so the people are going to look up.’ ”
A carillon is made from tons of bronze and steel, Frank reasoned.
“If that’s not heavy metal, what is it?” he said. “I play everything — including Metallica.”
Metallica was not on the program at the rededication, but who knows what may ring out from the bells in the future.
And now to another D.C.-area landmark that’s undergone a renovation: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Kensington. That’s the gleaming white “Surrender Dorothy” building visible from the Beltway.
Until June 11, the temple is open to non-Mormon visitors, the first time since 1974. Forty-eight years ago, Louise Plumb and some of her friends organized a visit to the recently opened temple. Wrote her husband, Robert: “Louise requested an early date for the visit since she was expecting to deliver our first child in early October. The date set was for Sept. 17.”
Louise completed the tour of the temple. The next morning she gave birth to a daughter.
“The doctor who delivered our daughter Sarah at Georgetown Hospital credited the early delivery to the visit to the temple that involved climbing numerous steps,” Robert wrote.
Louise and Robert live in Potomac, while Sarah Plumb DiGioia lives in Burke with husband Lou and son Jack. On May 6, the mother and daughter pair returned to the temple for a tour. This time, Sarah had to walk on her own.
Bye for now
I’m taking some time off. Look for me back in this space on May 23.