By Carolyn Lee
The Imperial Republican
It all started with a “little tin piano” and two piano teachers. Many years ago, out in Chase County, Phyllis Bonner Weichenthal, daughter of Clifford and Gladyce Bonner, became entranced with music.
When she was about seven years old, she began playing the piano under the direction of teachers Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Thelma Reynolds.
As she grew, she continued playing church hymns at Imperial United Methodist Church, and also sang in the choir.
At Chase County High School (CCHS) she played baritone saxophone and clarinet, accompanying “a lot of singing” at graduations, weddings and funerals, she said recently.
The experiences contributed to her composition of “Beresheet bara Eloheim,” or “In the Beginning God Created,” a symphony recorded live and performed by the University of California Davis (UC Davis) Symphony Orchestra in March 2014.
Along the way Weichenthal (pronounced Wy-can-thal), a 1955 CCHS graduate, earned degrees and taught English, got married, had a daughter and never quit playing the piano and organ.
“I’m an ecumenical organist,” she said. Playing in many churches, “Every church is unique in its style of music.”
After 60 years, she retired from playing for churches, but then “What are you going to do?” she was asked.
Weichenthal had been “hearing and writing music for choirs,” so she decided to write a symphony.
After a few detours, the Granite Bay, Calif., resident “began hearing the music.” She composed the four movement symphony on the piano, using “pencils, erasers, a yardstick and rulers.” No computer composition for her.
She would hear where violins should be placed and where flutes should be playing She would then note what she wanted to sound different.
After contacting the UC Davis School of Music, she was introduced to a graduate assistant who became a consultant, showing Weichenthal how to group the piano lines at the top and the other instruments below that.
“I wound up with the full score of a whole symphony,” she noted, adding that it included 52 instruments, not including harp and some percussion.
“Beresheet bara Eloheim” describes the first four days of creation as written in Genesis.
However, it took Weichenthal two years to “hear and capture it, doing the orchestration.”
“What I was led to write was the days of creation,” she explained. A Jewish Rabbi was consulted for the Hebrew translation.
“In my head that’s where it was supposed to start,” with the King James version.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
“And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”
“And God said, let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place and let the dry land appear and it was so.”
“And God said, let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.”
Weichenthal said husband Burton is “bugging her” to compose more, which will probably include the fifth day of Creation, or the birds and fish.
“What happens is I want to try to capture what I’m hearing,” she explained. “It felt like God was really leading me to do this. As if He said, ‘If you take this one step I’ll show you the next step.’”
A sound booth person at her church, First United Methodist Church of Loomis, urged her to let him record the organ version when she played it.
That led to the UC Davis recording, in which student musicians recorded the symphony live in front of 200 people.
Weichenthal said husband Burton, daughter Susan and husband Jerry Oliaro and their children Blake and Tessa were so supportive of her efforts, as was UC Davis, and God.
“The world is so full of harsh things, it’s my heart’s desire” to make it better, she stated.
And, while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, “The music was a joy.” Someone told her if it’s a joy, keep playing. “It’s a gift, to give it back as much as I can,” Weichenthal noted.
The Weichenthals were married at the old United Methodist Church in Imperial, now a private residence, in 1960.
Along the way they each obtained Bachelors, Masters and PhD degrees. Weichenthal taught English at Colorado State University, was assistant to the chancellor at the University of Illinois and then taught at the University of Nebraska at Scottsbluff before becoming a substance abuse treatment administrator from 1987-2000.
The couple retired to California in 2000 to become closer to their family.
While Weichenthal has been playing piano and organ and composing, Burton has sung in church choirs and in a barbershop group.
They also enjoy ballroom dancing.
Weichenthal’s grandfather established LC Bonner and Sons in Imperial in 1920. She still recalls the White Owl cigars he sold.
The Weichenthals recently attended the CCHS reunion of the Class of ‘55. They also recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.