WHITEMARSH — Although her post as carillonneur at St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, keeps her largely out of sight, Lisa Lonie has been a prominent fixture on this area’s summer music scene since 2000. During her nearly two decades at the historic Fort Washington house of worship, Lonie has helmed dozens of its free Tuesday night carillon concerts.

Over the years, those concerts have highlighted everything from traditional patriotic tunes to movie hits. But midway through 2019’s series, the local woman is focused on themes that dovetail with the coming year’s centennial celebration of female suffrage in the United States. More specifically, Lonie is looking to explore women’s impact on the carillon as performers and composers. And as an experienced traveler on the instrument’s national and international guest circuit, her perspective goes way beyond the Blue Bell home she shares with husband Paul or her sight line from the St. Thomas’ bell tower.

“In terms of touring, this is a big year to celebrate women in music…the (upcoming) centennial of the 19th Amendment and women’s suffrage,” Lonie says. “When I tour, my theme is music by women and about women, and that speaks to the broader issue of women in the arts…or the lack thereof.”

Especially when it comes to the carillon, which, contrary to what some people think, is a lot different from an oversized piano.

As Lonie explains: “The carillon is a musical instrument of 23 or more bells…hung stationary with only the clapper moving against the lip of the bell. It is manually played from a console with both fists and feet activating batons and pedals attached to the clappers through mechanical linkage. There is no electronic assistance to ring the bells.”

The 48 bronze bells in the St. Thomas’ Catherine Colt Dickey memorial carillon were cast in The Netherlands. The instrument’s largest bell weighs 3,300 pounds; its smallest, 24 pounds.

“The carillon has, for centuries, been very patriarchal, primarily due to early century beliefs that women were too frail to play such a physically demanding instrument,” continues Lonie, who began carillon lessons when she was 14 or 15. “Nevertheless, even today, in the Netherlands and Belgium — the birthplace of the carillon art — more than the majority of carillon positions are held by men. The gender employment gap is very real…here and abroad.”

Her interest in women in the field intensified when she and duet partner Janet Tebbel — who perform as The Treblemakers — received an invitation to play at Berea College in Kentucky this fall.

“Their series ‘Women of the Carillon’ focuses on the ‘talent and artistry’ of women in carillon,” Lonie adds. “We took the hook and ran with it.”

As planned, the diverse 15 or 16 pieces planned for their Berea College appearance will range from an emotional “Ave Maria” to the rousing operatic music of “Carmen.”

“It was a significant challenge to develop the program because there isn’t a bountiful amount of women composing music generally, let alone carillon pieces which we felt were audience-friendly,” Lonie says. “We had to open the aperture to include women arrangers and music about women. ‘Carmen’ (one of the pieces on the program), admittedly, isn’t exactly a great role model, but we were kind of desperate.”

The July 2-July 30 carillon concerts at St. Thomas’ — Tuesdays at 7 p.m. — reflect the annual event’s usual mix of themes and music. Fittingly, July 9’s Janet & Dwight Dundore Memorial Recital honored the late Janet Dundore, the gifted musician who preceded Lonie in the St. Thomas’ tower. The evening’s line-up included carillonneur Liesbeth Janssens and daughter Rosalie from Belgium and the Irish Thunder Bagpipe Band.

July 16 will feature Gijsbert Kok from the Netherlands and St. Thomas’ Music Director and organist Michael Smith; July 23, Lonie and Philadelphia-area handbell soloist Ron Bellamy; and July 30, Jan Verheyen from Belgium and the Liberty Belles Sweet Adelines Chorale.

Despite additional professional obligations — among them, her post as the first female carillonneur at Princeton University — and her day job as assistant to the president of Salus University, Lonie recently made time to co-author a Bucks County Tourism grant proposal that helped resurrect the carillon program at Trinity United Church of Christ in Holland, Bucks County. The 1929 Schneider Carillon was Lonie’s "office" before she assumed her position at St. Thomas', and she and Tebbel are scheduled to perform there on July 18. Bruce Todd, former pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette Hill and, Lonie says, this country’s “only carillonneur-pastor,” will follow them at a July 25 concert.

Lonie describes the 49-bell, 10,000 pound Schneider Memorial Carillon – “the first American-made set of carillon bells (1929)” – as a major cultural asset and says the revival of the church’s summer series “will provide accessible concert experiences to those who otherwise could not attend a traditional concert hall experience.”

“What’s more remarkable about Trinity’s carillon resurrection is that the church had listed it for sale,” she continues. “Now, thanks to (Pastor Roshan Soans), they are re-envisioning the instrument’s use and importance, both secularly and religiously. And it’s not for sale anymore.”

Bottom line, Lonie believes, “When the carillon is played, someone, somewhere is touched by the beauty and resonance of its message. For this reason, the carillon is an instrument that belongs to and is enjoyed by the entire community.”

The carillon concerts at St. Thomas’, Bethlehem Pike and Route 73, Fort Washington, are open to the public and take place rain or shine. Attendees have the option of picnicking on the church grounds or relaxing in the church’s air-conditioned interior and listening to a live feed from the bell tower. The series is partially supported by state and federal funding administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. 

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