For carillon player at Christ Cathedral, every chime's a charm

It's a most inaccessible musical instrument.

To play it, Melissa Weidner climbs 14 stories up a stainless-steel spire. Flexing her fingers inside gloves, she navigates seven switchback ladders before every performance, knowing one false step could seriously injure her. She doesn't look down.

Ten minutes after starting her ascent, Weidner finishes her drills and makes the instrument sing. It's 52 bells — each weighing from 50 pounds to 2 tons — bringing spiritual hymns to life.

Introducing the carillon.

The one Weidner, 34, works with is nestled near the top of the 236-foot-tall Crean Tower on the campus of Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, formerly known as the Crystal Cathedral, which was once guided by the late Robert H. Schuller.

Weidner, who has a master's degree in sacred music from Catholic University, says she would like to bring back sounds "silenced for too long at this beautiful space."

"It's probably the most exciting thing I do in my life," she says after the 10th time scaling the heights. "It's worth it. It speaks to me."

Her organ teacher happened to play the carillon and taught her. Only five such instruments exist in California, and there are fewer than 200 across the U.S.

"It's so obscure that even other musicians haven't heard of it," Weidner said.

Weidner is one of only 150 musicians in the U.S. certified as a carillonneur. It's a lonely profession for a woman whose day job is as a piano tuner and technician, but she rolls with it. To her, music, even in isolation, "holds beauty."

A few months ago, John Romeri became the church's new director of music. Weidner and Romeri decided to launch a seven-week Easter concert series highlighting the 50,000-pound carillon forged by the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in the Netherlands.

The instrument was featured in the April 2015 memorial service for Schuller, according to Romeri, but "hardly played before. We have to change that. Music brings us all together."

After a noon Mass on a recent Wednesday, a crowd of about 100 gathered at the foot of the tower. They were eager to hear Weidner unveil the first of 10 tunes, ranging from Baroque selections to hymns such as "Ye Sons and Daughters" and "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus."

The carillon has a keyboard, attached to foot pedals and bells. Players strike it like a piano; the harder the touch, the louder the sound.

The church's instrument is named after the late Arvella Schuller, the founder's wife. The bells can be played manually from a cabin the size of a closet, at the tower's apex, or from the consoles of the cathedral's organ.

Audience members began making requests, with some planning to share Weidner's playing on YouTube.

After the concert, Weidner descended from her perch, only to be swarmed by church groupies. They whistled, clapped, cheered.

"I think 10 of them are my mother's friends," the musician said, grinning.

Jim Stephens, who lives a block away in an Anaheim mobile home park, played hooky from his work as a computer programmer to come film the concert. "You sounded so wonderful up there," he told Weidner. "When I was working in Italy and heard the bells from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it was just noise. This — this is much prettier."

Carol Culbert, a retiree from Orange, used to visit the cathedral to catch its "Glory of Easter" and "Glory of Christmas" pageants. "Now I have a reason to come back. I don't know how else to describe this except to say it's awe-inspiring."

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on April 16, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "In a cathedral tower, it's sweet carillon - For a player of these inaccessible bells, every chime's a charm" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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