Canada’s ‘Voice of the Nation’ Rings Out in a Capital Quieted by a Virus

OTTAWA — Finding a spot on the sweeping lawn in front of Canada’s ornately Gothic Parliament buildings to hear a concert this month was not a problem in the middle of a pandemic.

As the 53-bell carillon of the Peace Tower rang out songs marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Holland by Canadian troops, an audience of just two listened, with people in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, heeding calls to avoid crowds during the coronavirus crisis.

But the symbolic import of these bells to Ottawa, and Canada, shouldn’t be judged by the sparse turnout.

Anthony Rota, the speaker of the House of Commons, is among the lawmakers who believe it is important that the bells continue to chime during the national health emergency.

“When you’re walking around and you see the Peace Tower and then you hear it, you get a certain feeling of pride of being Canadian,” Mr. Rota said. “It really gives you that feeling of, yeah, this is Canada. It’s just got that sound.”

For the bells to keep pealing, however, someone needs to play them, and that someone is Dr. Andrea McCrady, who bears an official title: the Dominion Carillonneur of Canada.

With Canada’s Parliament eager for the bells to sound during the outbreak — for reasons of morale and to provide a touch of normalcy — Dr. McCrady’s performances have become the only sanctioned musical events for a live audience in Canada’s capital during the shutdown.

Keeping the bells ringing is no easy feat. The Peace Tower, at 322-feet tall, defines Ottawa’s skyline. The tower’s elevator has an operator but not enough room for passengers to remain two meters apart, Canada’s distancing minimum, so Dr. McCrady must climb 188 steps to the snug room inside that contains the keyboard she uses to control the bells.

As many musicians turn to performing online during the pandemic, they are navigating for the first time how to connect with an audience watching over a screen instead of in-person.

For Dr. McCrady, a physical disconnection from her audience has long been part of the job.

“In the carillon world, you never know who’s on the ground,” she said. “And most people have no clue that it’s a live person up there.”

While the bells, the largest of which weighs more than 22,000 pounds, have occasionally been refurbished, “the mechanism, and everything else that’s up there now, is pretty much what was there in 1927,” said Johanna K. Mizgala, the curator of the House of Commons and Dr. McCrady’s supervisor.

In the tower, Dr. McCrady performs with a keyboard made up of a vertical panel of levers known as manuals and a pedal board connected by cables to the clappers that strike the bells.

When the National Film Board of Canada climbed up the tower for a 1951 documentary, Robert Donnell, the carillonneur at the time, prepared for a performance as if he was getting ready to brawl. He removed his jacket and tie, unbuttoned his shirt and slipped two thick leather protective rings around his pinkie fingers to protect them before striking the levers.

But Dr. McCrady said that adjustments to the mechanism during the 1980s made the carillon as subtle and sensitive an instrument as a piano. Not only does she not use leather rings, she wears dancing shoes to get a better feel of the pedals.

“If I pound the bells, it’s a very ugly sound,” she said. “It does not take physical endurance whatsoever. It’s much more mentally taxing than physically.”

The appointment of Dr. McCrady as the fifth Dominion Carillonneur in 2008, after a worldwide search, prompted some mild controversy. She is a native of Pittsburgh, and the decision meant that Canada’s national voice would be controlled by an American.

She did, however, have ties to Canada, having studied medicine at McGill University in Montreal and having done her residency in Toronto. During her time in Canada, she regularly performed on carillons in both cities.

There was, however, no questioning her carillon credentials. Before starting her medical studies, Dr. McCrady, a former pianist who found that her hands were too small to play that instrument at the highest levels, studied the carillon in Belgium, Holland and France.

Outside and on the grounds around Parliament, the carillon’s music floats ethereally through the air, the opposite of a pipe organ dominating a cathedral or a hockey arena.

Paul de Broeck was one of the two listeners at the recent 45-minute concert, which concluded with “Het Wilhelmus,” Holland’s national anthem. Mr. de Broeck, who cycles over from neighboring Gatineau, Quebec, for nearly all of Dr. McCrady’s shows, said he was disappointed that the best area for listening, out of the wind on the east side of the center block, is now fenced off for construction.

The center block of Parliament, the building connected to the Peace Tower, closed last year for a complex restoration project that will last about a decade. The House of Commons and Senate now meet in temporary chambers, and Dr. McCready has become Parliament’s lone employee not involved in the renovations still working inside of Canada’s seat of government.

The drop in traffic on the busy road in front of Parliament has reduced one source of noise competing with the carillon but the construction has added another. During Dr. McCrady’s two most recent concerts, some large excavators suspended their digging. But other workers continued sawing and nailing, and driving lifts that loudly beeped as they were moved.

Inside Dr. McCrady’s office, a musical library holds nearly a century’s worth of music adapted for the carillon. Not everything will work, Dr. McCrady said. Rock songs that rely on percussion don’t translate well, and she always turns down frequent requests for tunes with any political overtones.

But she is not beyond having some carillon fun: “Puff the Magic Dragon” accompanies the annual marijuana smoke-in each April 20.

Between the pandemic and the construction, Dr. McCrady will not be giving her usual 200 or so performances this year. And like Parliament itself, her schedule remains in flux. As a doctor, she has registered to help out with the medical system.

At another May concert, this one marking the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II, the turnout was somewhat better, reaching a peak of 15 extremely physically distanced listeners.

Dr. McCrady’s program for them, and the unknown number of online listeners, included two songs that worked just as well for Canada’s current state as they did for remembrances of 1945: “We’ll Meet Again” and “As Time Goes By.”


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