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Ring Them Bells

For 50 years, carillonneur Larry Robinson has had the Byrd's eye view.

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Do not ask who tolls the bells. In Richmond, it's Larry Robinson.

“If there's any breeze at all, you'll get it up here above the trees,” the musician says from the seventh floor of the 240-foot memorial tower in Byrd Park, where he has played the carillon bells for generations. “This is the highest place in the city. There are buildings downtown that are taller but they are on lower ground.”

The top of the tower offers a spectacular view, one that this wisp of a man has largely had to himself for 50 years. But the 70-something Robinson — the city's official carillonneur —  is finally getting a measure of overdue acclaim. On June 20, he will perform a special show on the legendary instrument as part of a summer-long Dogwood Dell carillon concert series that bears his name.

“When I found out it was his 50th year, I was flabbergasted,” Barbara Brock, the program specialist for Dogwood Dell, says. “It may look like it but it's not your basic piano setup. It takes real physical stamina to play the carillon.”

It takes even more stamina to get up to the top floors of the tower, which was erected in 1931 to pay tribute to World War I veterans. “But I can't practice anywhere else,” he says, “it's got to be here.” To reach his instrument, Robinson must climb an exhausting 208 stairs, or he must put his life in his hands by riding the memorial's antiquated Depression-era elevator (according to a sticker inside of the elevator, it was last inspected in 1994).

“Sorry. It's not very decorative up here,” Robinson says with some understatement as we survey the dingy workspace. There was a recent water leak, he adds, but it wasn't too bad. “We've had worse in the past,” he says. Along with assorted bric-a-brac — including a bag of replacement carillon springs that have been piled up in the same place since 1980 — the immense wooden carillon stands regally on a platform in the center of the room. “It's a sturdy instrument,” he says. “But it does sit out in the weather.”

If you didn't know better, you might mistake the huge unit for a pipe organ. Look closer and you'll see that Robinson is actually pushing down on sticks that look like broom handles (he has to wear gloves because of potential blisters) as well as a standard looking set of foot pedals. “All of these move the bell clappers,” he says as he clacks a few notes, triggering the collection of 53 bells that sit on the top floor above. “If you hit it harder, it makes a louder sound. It has all of the dynamic range that you'd have with a piano. … In fact, it is a bigger range.”

Utilizing bells that can weigh as little as twelve and as much as 11,000 pounds, the carillon is a rare and special instrument indeed (fewer than 170 exist in the United States); this model was manufactured more than 80 years ago by the prestigious John Taylor and Co. in Great Britain, the world's largest bell foundry. Each year, technicians from the United Kingdom come to inspect and repair it, as well as the identical instrument that sits in a far corner of the room.

“It's just like the real console except it isn't hooked up to anything,” Robinson says of his practice instrument. “So you can learn a new piece without the neighborhood hearing it.”

Now a retired music professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, the South Carolina native was a budding young student at Richmond Professional Institute in the late 1950s when the original Byrd Park carillon player, Wyatt Insko, brought him in as an assistant. Back then, the bells were played more than they are today — you could hear them before, during and after all Dogwood Dell performances. “After two summers, he got a good job in Chicago,” Robinson remembers. “Here I was … I wasn't fully trained but I could do a little bit. I was an organist and was already used to using my feet and hands to play.”

Fifty years, and many finger blisters later, he's still clacking the bells. And he's happy that this obscure instrument, which dates back to the 17th century, is making something of a comeback today.

“There are more players now than ever before,” he says, adding that he has helped to train some of the new breed, including Edward Nassor, who now plays the prestigious Netherlands Carillon at Arlington Cemetery. The former student will be one of the guest musicians performing this summer as part of the Larry Robinson Carillon Concert Series.

Nowadays, Robinson plays eight to 10 times a year, usually for patriotic occasions, such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July. The latter is when he participates in a performance of the vaunted “1812 Overture” that may be the only way to hear the piece the way that Tchaikovsky intended — with an orchestra, blasting cannons and authentic carillon bells.

“You should see it from up here on Fourth of July,” Robinson, who is also an amateur visual artist, says. He has long wanted to paint a picture that shows a firsthand view of the spectacle. “The fireworks are happening right in front of your face,” he says. “It's spectacular. Nobody can see them the way I can up here.”

The Larry Robinson Carillon Concert Series at Byrd Park will present Larry Robinson on June 20, Lon Mitchell on June 27, Ryan Hebert on July 25 and Edward Nassor on Aug. 1. All performances are free and begin at 4 p.m.

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