School of Music, Theatre and Dance

A life in music: Dennis Curry finds calling as OU’s resident carillonneur

icon of a calendarJuly 3, 2024

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A life in music: Dennis Curry finds calling as OU’s resident carillonneur
Dennis Curry at the carillon
Dennis Curry, OU’s resident carillonneur

For the past 10 years, Dennis Curry has been making beautiful music atop Elliott Tower as Oakland University’s resident carillonneur.

“It’s been my honor,” said Curry, who also played an integral role in designing the 151-foot-tall tower, which serves as a rallying point for student activities and creates a stunning visual centerpiece for Oakland’s campus.

Donated by longtime supporters Hugh and Nancy Elliott, the tower features a fully chromatic 49-bell carillon, which was the last carillon to have its bells and keyboard cast by the Petit and Fritsen Royal Bellfoundry in the Netherlands.

“Being the very last Petit and Fritsen, it has a lot of notoriety,” Curry said. “The story of how Oakland University got it is also very interesting.”

According to Curry, Nancy Elliott was watching her son playing golf at Grand Valley State University when she heard a sound unlike any she’d heard before. It was the sound of bells from the Beckering Family Carillon Tower on the GVSU campus.

“When she learned it was a carillon, she immediately thought that it was something Oakland University needed, and that it could be the centerpiece of our campus,” Curry said. “So, she went to Christ Church Cranbrook, St. Hugo of the Hills, and Kirk in the Hills, where I happened to be playing. When she found out the carillon I was playing was a Petit and Fritsen, she called them up and asked what she needed to do to get one. When they asked her if she had a tower yet, she said she would build one. That’s sort of how we connected.”

Curry served as a consultant during construction of Elliott Tower. The tower was dedicated in September 2014 and will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year.

“Ten years went by very fast,” Curry said. “But I still remember the dedication like it was yesterday. We had a brass band, and VIP seating with about 500 or 600 seats. We had to work out a system because by the time the sound from the band would come up to me and I would do something, it would take a while for the sound to travel back down. So, we tried closed circuit TV, and that seemed to work pretty well.”

Curry also recalls working with Dr. James Lentini, former senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost at Oakland University, to compose a piece of music that was premiered on the carillon during the dedication ceremony.

“After I explained the basics of how the carillon worked, he was able to crank out a gorgeous piece entitled ‘Ulysses’ Sail,’” he said. “I thought it was an odd title, but when I asked him what it meant he said that one of Matilda Dodge Wilson’s favorite stories was about Ulysses going out into the world, and because the logo for Oakland University was a sail, it became ‘Ulysses Sail.’”

Curry said he has played the piece during the opening of every “Six Fridays at 6 Summer Carillon Concert Series,” and plans to play it again during in September when the university officially celebrates the 10th anniversary of the dedication of Elliott Tower.

“It was an honor to be able to play at the original dedication, and it will be an honor to play again during the 10th anniversary celebration,” he said.

A professional carillonneur for over 35 years, Curry began studying the carillon with Dr. Frederick Marriott and became an advanced member of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA) in 1989. He is also a past president of the GCNA, and a member of the Executive Committee of the World Carillon Federation (WCF), where he has served as treasurer, vice-president and secretary.

In 2001, Curry hosted the 59th GCNA Congress at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which honored the centennials of Percival Price and Frederick Marriott; and in 2011, he hosted the joint GCNA and WCF World Congress in Michigan, which was the largest gathering of carillonneurs in the 500-year history of the carillon instrument.

“The carillon is an interesting instrument because it’s like an organ in that you’ve got notes that you play with your feet, but it’s also like a piano because you can play it loud and soft depending how hard you strike the levers,” Curry said.

As a carillon recitalist, Curry has performed on nearly every continent in the world.

“Except Antarctica, and that’s only because there’s no carillon there,” he said.

Curry has also performed in several prestigious international carillon festivals, and on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks he was honored to present a memorial recital at the National Carillon in Canberra, Australia.

In addition, Curry has played all 14 carillons in Michigan, and on many important instruments — ranging from 23 bells to 77 bells — throughout the world, including Hyechon College (Korea), Misono (Japan), YMCA (Jerusalem), Crystal Cathedral (Garden Grove), Princeton (NJ), Peace Tower (Ottawa), Oudekirk (Amsterdam), Bruges (Belgium), Vors Frelsers Kirke (Copenhagen), Old Bond Street (London), Riverside Church (Manhattan), Lyon Town Hall (France), St. Colman’s Cathedral (Ireland), and Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral (St. Petersburg, Russia).

“I was afforded an opportunity to visit a lot of places, and even if I didn’t play the carillon while I was there, I was still able to listen,” Curry said.

Curry discovered his passion for music at an early age when he began taking pipe organ lessons, as well as piano lessons.

“I didn’t like the piano that much, but (the organ) captured my fascination,” he said.

In college, Curry double majored in music and computer science — a relatively new field at the time — and earned a Bachelor of Arts from Indiana University Bloomington in 1970. He would go on to earn a Master of Business Administration degree in operations research from the University of Michigan in 1975, and a Master of Science degree in systems engineering from U of M in 1982.

“I ended up working for Ford Motor Company as a regional manager for environmental and safety engineering,” he said. “I made sure that, in all of the countries where I was representing Ford, the company knew what the rules were. So, if they (Ford) were going to build a vehicle and ship it to, Russia for example, you needed to understand what the regulatory requirements were there.”

After retiring from Ford during the Great Recession of 2008, Curry found employment with Navistar, a company which produces International-brand commercial trucks and engines.

“I got them into South America, Africa, Australia, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East,” Curry said. “The travel was pretty rugged at times. Sometimes, I would arrange to fly through Amsterdam or Paris or someplace and reach out to people I knew there to see if I could play their carillon while I was there. It was a good way to stay connected to people, and to the music that I enjoyed.”

An advocate for promoting the carillon art and building community awareness, Curry has premiered many commissioned carillon works, and established the Todd Fair Memorial Collection for scholarly research and student study at Oakland University.

“It's been a great vocation, more of an advocation really,” Curry said. “And it keeps me fit. Climbing all those steps (to the top of the tower) and playing an hour-long recital really is a full-body experience.”

You can listen to Curry perform when the Six Fridays at 6 Summer Carillon Concert Series returns to the Oakland University campus beginning on Friday, July 5.

The free concert series features six carillonneurs from around the world and will be held on six Fridays at 6 p.m. outside Oakland University’s Elliott Tower. This year’s guest performers include:

• July 5 – Dennis Curry from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

• July 12 – Gijsbert Kok from The Hague, The Netherlands

• July 19 – Deborah Hennig from Sratford, Ontario, Canada

• July 26 – Kayla Gunderson from Chicago, Ill.

• August 2 – David R. Hunsberger from The University of California in Berkeley

• August 9 – Alan Bowman from Dayton, Ohio.

For more information about the Six Fridays at 6 Summer Carillon Concert Series, contact Dennis Curry at [email protected].

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