By Michael Drapa
Photo by Dan Dry
Tom Weisflog gets goose bumps just thinking about it.
Seven years after being silenced, the University’s grand E.M. Skinner Organ is speaking again, along with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, which has not chimed since last September.
From high above the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel nave, Weisflog had a unique vantage point of the historic, three-year, $2.1 million restoration of Chicago’s largest organ.
At a Saturday, June 7 gala concert, he will finally get to show off the magnificent, thunderous sound that he had always imagined, through all the planning and long days of dissection and meticulous rebuilding.
“This is like a dream come true,” said Weisflog, University Organist since 2000. “We’re fortunate to be on duty when the conditions are right. It’s true history.”
More than 15 years ago, Wylie Crawford joined a team that plotted the renovation of the chapel’s other grand attraction, the world’s second-largest carillon.
As University Carillonneur since 1984, he has made the 235-step pilgrimage to the chapel’s belfry more times than he can count, sweating and shivering through summers and winters, struggling with the physical demands of the huge instrument.
Over the last nine months, he has watched crews with cranes dismantle the carillon, waited as the parts floated to the Netherlands and back, and oversaw its reconstruction.
“It’s 100 tons of bronze,” Crawford said. “The whole carillon world is watching.”
Weisflog and Crawford, both Chicago alumni, are honored by their place in history among two of the jewels of the University, which sound better than when first installed—and far better than when the men first played them.
In 2005, former University President Don Randel declared the restoration of the carillon and organ a priority in a chapel sermon. Later that year, trustees and friends presented him with a birthday gift of $1.6 million and promised to keep up the fund-raising effort.
Considered one of the great University organs, along with Michigan, Princeton and Yale, the Skinner Opus 634 was completed in 1928 at a cost of $76,500. But it was retired in favor of an electronic model in 2001, after time, rain leaks and several modifications stifled the grand organ’s Romantic sound.
“To see this thing brought back to life, it’s been a real joy,” said Weisflog, who visited the chapel daily to photograph and fuss over every step of a redesign he helped develop. “This organ had been silenced for so long.”
The Royal Eijsbouts foundry began dismantling the carillon last September. Built in 1932, it boasted 72 bells weighing up to 18.5 tons, but poor engineering hampered the instrument’s range and its players.
“There are carillonneurs who said they would not come play anymore because it was just too overwhelming to try and wrestle this thing to a draw,” Crawford said. “Notes were just so unpredictable.”
One weekend evening in 1966, Crawford, then a physics graduate student, was walking across campus when he was “accosted” by sounds coming from the chapel roof, where then-carillonneur Daniel Robins was staging one of his famed concerts—tubas, bass drums, spotlights and all.
“I thought, ‘Whoa, this is bizarre.’ I told myself that I wanted to meet the person responsible for this musical insanity. It was fantastic.”
Crawford took a tour and met Robins—“this rather flamboyant person in a tuxedo and patent-leather shoes”—who agreed to let Crawford play the carillon, and even gave him a key to the chapel so he could practice.
“Sometimes he’d go out on a Saturday night, and he’d call me up and say, ‘Go up there and play something tomorrow, please,’” Crawford joked. “And that was my debut. I got hooked on it.”
Now retired after 20 years in computer networking, Crawford is able to devote most of his time to playing. He’s a carillonneur at a number of institutions and helped design the Naperville Millennium Carillon and played in its 2000 debut—a career highlight.
Weisflog got started even earlier.
At age 7, he and his grandmother attended an Easter sunrise service in Niagara Falls, N.Y. After hearing the church’s organ, Weisflog was hooked quicker than a 32nd note.
“Right at that moment, I decided I was going to learn to play the thing. Instantaneously. I nagged my parents until finally, at age 15, I started taking organ lessons in that very church, on that very organ.”
When Weisflog checked out the University as a prospective graduate student in March 1968, he ducked into the chapel. After receiving his M.S. in chemical physics, Weisflog found his true calling in music. He’s now an organist at two local houses of worship and has played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among others.
Weisflog had considered sticking with chemical physics, perhaps at Yale, a school with another great organ. “But it probably wouldn’t have worked out, and I would be a miserable chemist somewhere.”
It’s weird science, but for these two musicians, it’s been just the perfect formula.
Originally published on June 2, 2008.