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Carol Williams Concert Review
by Allen Walker

On Sunday, September 26, 1999, I attended the Carol Williams concert on the 4/26 (Publix 4) Wurlitzer at Long Island University (formerly Paramount Theatre) in Brooklyn NY. I had heard that she was both good and unique, and made the decision to travel from Boston to Brooklyn hear her. For those who want the bottom line first: It was much more than worth the trip!

The setting is a college basketball gymnasium, with a gleaming hardwood floor, baskets, and a huge scoreboard suspended above. But, beyond all of these modern sports appurtenances one can see the incredibly ornate ceiling and walls, with all the carvings of cherubs, etc., of a golden-age cinema palace. Thrusting up out of the basketball hardwood floor is the beautiful "Mayan" style console of the organ, still on its original lift from the former orchestra pit. This 71- year old instrument is in its original location and uses its original relay, and is voiced just at it was when it was in regular theatre use. That it is in such great condition is a testament to the loving care it is receiving from the New York Theatre Organ Society.

Now to the performer: She entered, coming around the ornate console wearing an elegant gown and heels, tall and slender with brown hair tumbling down about her shoulders. [I haven't seen a lady play a serious organ concert in heels since as a lad I was smitten by that late French virtuoso, Jeanne Demessieux.] She sat down at the console and made good on that entrance, calling forth incredibly intense music from that instrument.

She played a wide range of music, much of it more "modern" than many of the tunes we usually hear on a theatre organ. A lot of fifties and later music was done in a very vigorous style. She obviously favors blues and jazz styles. Indeed, for a ballad like "Norwegian Wood" she managed to rock the place. She played some songs quietly, turning them into reveries.

She also played a classical piece, the popular Toccata from Widor's Fifth Organ Symphony, making it seem like the piece was written for that Wurlitzer, rather than a Cavaille'-Coll. Her unusual and difficult decision to play the high arpeggiated figures portamento rather than the usual legato allowed me to hear otherwise hidden treasures in that piece, which I formerly considered to be well-worn (but fun). When a theatre organist adds a classical piece to an otherwise popular music program, I never expect to hear anything new in the piece. I was delighted to have my expectation refuted.

Carol Williams' playing style is substantially different from most theatre organists' styles. She does not do incessant registration changes. Rather, she will stick with a manual sound, and make changes (either gradual or sudden) that flow from the music itself. Also, unlike many theatre organists, she will often play with both hands on one manual (as is common in classical playing). Within this way of playing, she gets a huge amount of expression by using a variety of keyboard touches (from staccato through portamento and legato to super-legato) and harmonic choices (thicker and closer harmonies for more intensity, playing more notes simultaneously for more loudness). Also, she used the extremely effective swell shutters effectively to get seemingly different registrations. [After spending a lot of time hearing theatre organs that have been put into small halls, it is a revelation to hear how soft full organ can be with the shutters closed -- made possible by the very substantial concrete pipe chambers and the vastness of the theatre space.]

Clearly, Ms. Williams' classical training shows in her control and flawless technique, and her fondness for using a variety of touches for expression. It also enables her to do flourishes such as very briefly doubling the melody line with the pedals to emphasize a point. She also likes to use an individual stop during softer playing (to good effect). She seems to want to give the individual pipes a chance to speak to us.

However, the most notable aspect of this concert was not her style or technique. I was stunned by the passion and fire of her playing. Her jazz playing was incandescent. Her intense enthusiasm for all the pieces she played was communicated to us all. When she spoke to us with considerable charm from in front of the console (seen only in silhouette -- the only lighting was on the console), she strode back and forth with great energy. It seemed like she couldn't wait to get back to the console and play some more. She also does something rare for a theatre organist: like truly great performers, she reveals something from inside herself when she plays. Sometimes it was her obvious love of some pipe voices, sometimes a love of a melodic line. Sometimes it was the daring feeling of the intensity of jazz progressions, sometimes the humor inherent in a piece about a prideful lady mincing down the street. There were no mere decorations.

In playing, Ms. Williams did not seek cover. She was willing to use one or two ranks and build an expressive piece from that material. She was also willing to make the instrument jump and roar with a cheerful raucousness and abandon. I had no idea that that instrument could be so forceful and loud. She could also be dramatic in contrasts. She sometimes used the deep voices of the organ and could shake the place with a manual flourish.

I enjoyed this concert enormously. Carol Williams is a unique and talented musician with a splendid passion about her. Of course, I can't help but wonder about other aspects of this young performer. Does she have similar fire in her frequent classical performances? [And, would they let her?] What would her theatre organ playing be like if she shook herself free of her disciplined arrangements and just improvised? She is a person of considerable present-time accomplishment, and also of intriguing potential. I am looking forward to hearing more of her.

Article by Allen Walker: