Church works to preserve its sounds of music
There is perhaps nothing that says New England more than a town with a white-steepled church whose bells toll throughout the day. The Wilton Congregational Church is just such a church, but its carillon — the chimes that denote each quarter hour and send forth music into the community — is in dire straits. It needs to be replaced immediately and the church is reaching out for support to keep that tradition alive.
Bring the Music On! is a fund-raising concert planned for Saturday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m., featuring the church’s music director, Eugene Sirotkine, and pastor, the Rev. Dr. Anne Coffman. In addition to heading the church’s music ministry, Sirotkine was assistant conductor and chorus master with The New York Metropolitan Opera from 1999 to 2008 and is conductor and musical director of the Hudson Valley Singers. An internationally known pianist and choral conductor, he has performed and conducted in North and South America, Europe and Asia.
The church is bringing in a concert grande Forste piano for Sirotkine, who said the concert will include classical piano masterpieces — works by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Glinka — and lighter fare, including a rag by J.P. Johnson.
“It will end with a bang,” he promised.
Also performing will be Coffman, a trained opera singer, who will perform an aria from Samson et Delila by Saint-Saens. Translated from the French, it is My Heart Opens at Your Voice. Singing, she said, was her first career before she came to the ministry.
Tickets for the concert are $100 and may be ordered online at wiltoncongregational.org or by calling 203-762-5591. A reception will take place at 6 before the concert.
The church has both a bell and a carillon. The bell — installed in 1850 — rings from the 95-foot-high steeple. Only the second bell ever installed, it must be rung manually, something church and carillon project member Kevin Murray remembers doing as a youngster. The bell is rung for Sunday services, special occasions, weddings and funerals.
While the bell is in good shape, the carillon is not. A gift of Wilton philanthropist Charles Dana in 1948, at 70 years old it is outdated and needs to be replaced since it can no longer be repaired. The carillon is not a grouping of actual bells, but is an electronic setup that reproduces the ringing of bronze bells through the use of CDs. It denotes each quarter hour and plays a five-minute “mini-concert” at noon and 5 p.m.
“It is unreliable and we can lose it any day,” Sirotkine said. “People expect it to be there. It’s a meaningful part of our history.”
The digital system church leaders have decided upon will bring the church, built in 1790 and the oldest in Fairfield County, into the 21st Century. That dichotomy is something they have given considerable thought to, Coffman told The Bulletin.
“We are conscious of our history and tradition, but still need to be in the 21st Century,” she said.
Murray also spoke to the future, saying they are looking at a system that will last 30 to 50 years. He said “generationally, we are carrying the torch.”
The new system will be programmed like the present system, to not operate very early in the morning or late at night. The chimes can be heard up Ridgefield Road at Hillside Cemetery where, Coffman imagines, “they offer peace and comfort.”
The new carillon will not only mean more reliable sounds from the steeple, but it will be integrated into an expanded audio-visual system meant to enhance the experience of church members.
The system’s mainframe will be installed at the organ where it may be controlled via wi-fi through an iPad or iPhone. Sirotkine will be able to play the carillon “live,” utilizing a combination of bell sounds as well as organ tones. He will also be able to record bell pieces and save them for use at a later date, such as holidays or special events.
“Eugene is incredibly creative. He will find interesting ways to use it,” Coffman said.
Beyond the carillon, further upgrades include an assisted-listening system that will display the words of hymns on screens.
Church services and special events will be video recorded and live-streamed on the church’s website, allowing anyone to watch from a variety of devices.
The company that will do the audio-visual work, Sound Associates, is sensitive to older churches, Murray said. “It’s great technology but not obtrusive to members.”
The entire project is expected to cost $85,000 and church leaders are hoping for installation in January to continue providing the sounds that have become part of the rhythm of life for many.
“With a changing religious landscape — churches have been playing bells for centuries,” Coffman said. “It’s an important part of peoples’ spiritual life.”