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Lord of the Rings

When William De Turk bangs on the keys of the carillon  at Historic Bok Sanctuary,  the music is moving.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published April 13, 2006


LAKE WALES -- One time a convention of cantankerous crows collected on the bell tower. "Caw. Caw. Caw,'' they cried. Then, growing bolder - acting as if they owned the place - they set about making the kind of racket that gives crows a bad name.

''CAW! CAW! CAW!''

It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. If everything was to go according to schedule at Historic Bok Sanctuary, William De Turk couldn't throw a hissy fit about bellicose birds. He was going to have to play the carillon anyway.

Sitting at a big oak bench, hundreds of feet above the gardens but only a few feet below the crows, he struck the carillon keys with fists and feet. The corresponding bells began tolling. Mozart's Ronda Alla Turca, performed on the carillon, shamed even crows into silence.

Everybody and everything gets quiet when De Turk sits at the carillon. Anyway, that is how it is supposed to work. He is only the third carillonneur at the old tourist attraction since 1929. His predecessors, Anton Brees and Milford Myhre, knew how to quiet the crows, too.

"Quiet is requested during the recitals.''

So says the program handed to visitors after they enter the sanctuary. Visitors aren't supposed to talk. They are encouraged to turn off their cell phones. No reason to eat crunchy potato chips in the garden.

"We love silence,'' says the carillonneur.

When the first note was tolled on the carillon, the Great Depression was under way and the former president, Calvin Coolidge, was sitting quietly in the audience. The bells - 63 tons of bronze - remain in tune to this day. The smallest, lighter than a bowling ball, weighs 13 pounds. The heaviest is 12 tons.

When De Turk talks about heavy metal, he doesn't mean Black Sabbath. He knows the work of the Beatles, but he is more comfortable with classical music. Regular visitors recently may have been startled to hear O Danny Boy on St. Patrick's Day, though he called it Londonderry Air, its formal title.

He is a rather formal man. Sometimes the word "hence'' pops up in his vocabulary. He allows a few close friends the informality of calling him "Bill,'' but even people who know him well address him as "Mr. De Turk."

Courtesy titles such as "Mr." and "Mrs.'' seem to go with the dignified territory of the sanctuary. Gardeners don't wear bowlers and three-piece suits, but they ought to. Female docents should saunter through the lushness carrying parasols. Historic Bok Sanctuary is Florida's unofficial garden of serenity. There is no place in the state like it. A lush 250 acres of oaks and magnolias, camellias and azaleas, consecrates the top of the highest point in peninsular Florida, 298-foot Iron Mountain.

Benches, shelters and shady spots provide vistas from which to admire not only the flora but the fauna, the butterflies, the birds, the squirrels, the fairies. Actually, nobody has ever reported a fairy, but if they exist, this would be the place to find them.

Edward Bok, an American editor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and wealthy philanthropist, began visiting Florida early in the 20th century. In 1925, he hired Frederick Olmsted Jr., a landscape architect whose father had designed New York's Central Park, to create the garden. Bok hired a famous architect, Milton Medary, to build a tower to house a carillon. Bok was born in the Netherlands, the carillon capital of the planet, and thought Florida needed one.

The tower is probably Florida's most beautiful, constructed with steel, red brick, Georgia marble and Florida coquina. Bok hired Lee Lawrie to sculpt the statues of herons at the top and Samuel Yellin to design the wrought iron gates and the heavy brass door decorated by a depiction of theThe Creation.

In England, John Taylor Bellfounders Ltd. forged the bells and built a traditional carillon. Carillons go back to the time of Shakespeare; about 400 grace towers and cathedrals in Europe today. In North America, the Guild of Carillonneurs has a membership of 500. Unfortunately, there are only 190 available instruments, including four in Florida, so not everyone gets time at the keyboard.

De Turk knows the location of every carillon in the world. He has maps throughout his office, and pins in the maps that show the cities that have carillons. He has played many of them.

He beams when fellow carillonneurs telephone and ask about "Bok Heaven.'' In carillon circles, Mr. De Turk is widely considered the luckiest musician alive.

***

The ideal carillonneur would be a man about as tall and as strong as Shaq O'Neal. The highest note on the Bok Tower keyboard, an F, is more than 7 feet away from the wooden slat that plays the lowest note, an E flat. It helps to have a wide wingspan.

De Turk, who is 60 and delicately built, stands about 5 feet 7 inches tall. For him, playing the carillon is an athletic endeavor, something like playing goalie in hockey. To reach the keys, he scoots back and forth across the bench, hands and feet flashing. At the end of a performance, he can be drenched in perspiration.

He has worked at his music since he began studying piano as a first-grader. "Unlike other children, I never had to be told to practice,'' he tells people. "More frequently I was told to stop practicing.''

A music major, he graduated with honors from Ohio's Heidelberg College and then got a master's studying organ at the University of Michigan. There was a carillon on campus; he took a lesson and was smitten. After a year of study at Historic Bok Sanctuary, he spent the next 17 as carillonneur at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Michigan. He became Myhre's understudy at the sanctuary in 1993; when Myhre retired in 2004 - after 37 years - De Turk became the featured carillonneur.

De Turk has an assistant, Lee Cobb, who learned to play carillon at the University of Florida. They spell each other at the keyboard and then try to rest.

It takes power to depress the low notes on the carillon. "In Europe, some carillonneurs brutalize their instruments,'' De Turk says. "But we don't do that here.''

He has small feet and hands and, like many carillonneurs, thick wrists.

***

Boompatta boompatta! Boompatta boompatta!

In the city, there is no escape from those bazooka bass speakers hidden in so many automobile trunks. Houses tremble. The ground quakes.

BOOMPATTA! BOOMPATTA!

At Historic Bok Sanctuary, no one has ever heard the Ramones belting out "NOW I GUESS I'LL HAVE TO TELL 'EM THAT I GOT NO CEREBELLUM'' in Cretin Hop. Nobody will ever nod along as R. Kelly raps - BOOMPATTA! BOOMPATTA! - about fornicating in the kitchen next to the buttered rolls.

Shush now.

De Turk sits at the carillon. Remember how Liberace used to roll his knuckles across the length of the keyboard so dramatically? De Turk can do that on the 60 heavy wooden keys of the carillon without breaking any bones.

"Arpeggiation,'' he explains.

He usually doesn't warm up. He just plays.

With the sides of his hands or fists, he strikes the keys. Attached to the keys are wires that disappear through the ceiling and yank the clappers in the bells.

Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring gets a good workout, and there are no crows to ruin things.

"I crave silence,'' De Turk likes to tell people. "There is not enough of silence in the world. Everything is too frenetic. Mr. Bok was very wise to design a place like this. You know what my idea of a good time is? Sitting on my sofa with a glass of French wine in total silence.''

De Turk doesn't own a cell phone. He doesn't have an iPod. At home he has a grand piano and two polite golden retrievers, Cy and Sasha, who bark only if provoked.

When he needs to practice, he plays the carillon at night. If he needs to work something out during the day, he plays a practice carillon next to his office.

The practice carillon is exactly like the performance carillon except for the bells. The bells in the practice instrument are small. It doesn't take much strength to make them ring.

Sometimes a visitor to the sanctuary requests a song. De Turk is particular about playing only carillon-friendly music, so often the requests are politely declined. But some days, perhaps early spring days when the orange blossoms perfume the air, find him in a charitable mood.

"Yes, yes, I can do that,'' he says. He leans across the keyboard of his practice instrument and attacks.

A moment later the bells are tinkling.

For the record, Chopsticks sounds pretty good on the carillon.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.