"Don’t you think it’s time they named a Bellplatz?" mused DellaPenna, who's been mesmerized by the haunting beauty of the carillon for more than 40 years. "Sharing this instrument with the public has been like living in a dream world," he said of his 4,000-pound bronze wonder that’s been his traveling companion since 1991.
Cast in Bronze can be heard nightly on the hour through Sunday at Musikfest’s Handwerkplatz. If the name of the act is not familiar, the music surely will be. It's rather hard to miss this golden, phoenix-masked performer in black costume pounding his mounted, framed instrument set in a grassy field. The scene is almost as if he fell from a time machine dating back to 15th Century Europe. He expresses each movement as his fists strike the keyboard and his feet pound the wooden levers wired to the clappers of the 35 cast-bronze bells.
According to DellaPenna, Cast in Bronze is the only musical act of its kind in the world, and the first transportable carillon in the United States. It is the only carillon in its 500-year history ever to be supported solely by its live performances and recordings, and not by government agencies, foundations, institutions or endowment funds. DellaPenna said he created the act more as an experiment to see if people would accept its haunting sounds combined with such instruments as keyboard, bass guitar and drums.
"Cast in Bronze is definitely a festival favorite," said Mark Demko, spokesperson for ArtsQuest which operates Musikfest. "People call and email us asking if Frank will be part of the year’s entertainment lineup. In addition to his music, they love his great stage show. He's a very unique performer."
DellaPenna delights in sharing his music at the festival with all ages. "Last year, I had a young teen come up to me and tell me he's been coming to hear me at Musikfest since he was 5," he said. "He grew up listening to the carillon." DellaPenna said he’s especially proud when he hears how a student has been inspired to study the carillon at college. He encourages those who say they want to learn how to play his instrument to pursue the piano.
That’s how it all started for DellaPenna, who was raised in Phoenixville. His childhood piano teacher introduced him to the carillon, and that was the impetus that spurred him to study the instrument in France after college. He said he was the first American to graduate from the French Carillon School in Tourcoing, France, with the degree of Master Carillonneur.
DellaPenna was part of a live musical act – the predecessor of Cast in Bronze – at the Fountain Stage at Walt Disney World’s Epcot in Florida for many years before he followed his instinct to perform as a silent and masked musician (since carillons were heard from European bell towers and its performers remained incognito) or "spirit of the bells," at the Florida Renaissance Festival. Much to his surprise, audiences were receptive to his mysterious musical presentation.
Back in Pennsylvania, he held a job as resident carillonneur at the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge when he was encouraged by a stranger to share his dream of sharing the beauty of the carillon with listeners. The stranger, who chooses to remain anonymous, made a purchase in 1992, of a mobile carillon frame with 35 bronze bells that came from a Dutch bell foundry. He found just the right person to ring them when he met DellaPenna.
DellaPenna's current traveling carillon was built in Coatesville and went on the road in December 2010, marking the 20th anniversary of Cast in Bronze. The bells, however, are all from foundries located in the Netherlands. It was necessary for DellaPenna to replace all the keys and pedals on the original traveling carillon which activated the 35 bells for more than 40 years and played some 10,000 shows.
In 1995, Cast in Bronze played for Pope John Paul II, during a Mass celebrated at New York’s Central Park. "I was about 15 feet away from the Pope," DellaPenna recalled, though he never was formally introduced. The act also was part of Alice Cooper’s annual Christmas Pudding benefit concert in Phoenix, AZ, in 2004. "He’s a very cool guy," DellaPenna said of the rocker. "He absolutely loved it."
Cast in Bronze tours for about 10 months out of the year and performs at major Renaissance festivals throughout the country. The next stop will be in Pittsburgh later this month. Since he can’t be in two places at the same time, DellaPenna said he does have a Cast in Bronze understudy, Cyrus Rua, who already was on the Renaissance circuit and whom he trained on the carillon for traveling performances. Rua, who hails from Texas, also performs wearing a golden phoenix mask and black costume.
DellaPenna said he's touched when a special stage is built at a festival just for his instrument. "I never ask for a stage," he said. "It’s the power of the bells that carries. …As a musician, you’re asking people to give up their time. You’re there to create magic. That's when you’ve done your job as an entertainer. I do this for my audience. I want it to cleanse them."
Life's been good for DellaPenna, who said he's written a two-hour musical based around how the music of the carillon affects people. He’s also excited that a carillon school is beginning in Centralia, IL, and that he’s been invited to join its faculty. But for now, he said he’s content being with his fans at Musikfest because he likes "coming home."
The fifth annual Allentown Shakespeare in the Park presents “Macbeth” on Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., at Joseph S. Daddona Park, Union and St. Elmo streets. Free admission.
For further info: allentownpa.gov