18 November 2011

Allen Organ Concert

Review of a concert by Carlo Curley at Allen Organ in Macungie, PA

Carlo Curley, a burley wonder of an organ showman, is dazzling us with his talent, wit, and flashy technique. In a varied program of classics both poignant, boisterous, and overplayed, he's setting us laughing and slack-jawed with delight.

I first visited Allen Organ for a Lehigh Valley Arts Council event a couple of months ago and vowed to come back for a concert. It is well worth it. First of all, the hall itself is just about worth the ticket price: the audience sits inside the instrument, surrounded by pipes and bells and whistles. We feel the music as much as hear it.

Allen Organ is a remarkable place, and the instrument-makers masters of their craft. They have set some world records, earned many firsts (including first digital instrument), and sustained their reputation over nearly a century of making fine organs.

And Mr. Curley himself is as good and funny a storyteller as a dazzling musician and showman. It's almost as much fun to listen to him talk as to listen to him play, then talk, then play, story after story, piece after piece....

His program is very well chosen to exhibit the range of the organ's varied abilities and to exploit the varied sensibilities of a (mostly very aged) audience. We can see him listening to each chord, each note, each overtone, even. He holds the last chord twice as long as annotated, leaning into it, ears extending, body absorbing and enjoying the whole layered resonance of it all. This listening pleasure was reflected in the varied program, which started with a challengingly delicate, sustained bit of Dvorak, and proceeding through fast and slow, loud and soft, harmonic and contrapuntal and melodic: Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein....

So he told one story just now, before intermission, that set us off into paroxysms of amusement. He was asked to play at St. Paul's Cathedral in August of 1979. He was practicing on the fine instrument there (!), when a clergyman approached him and asked, “in a voice dripping with ridicule,” if he would “play something American” if he were asked for “a little something extra at the end of the show.” Well, Mr. British, thinks this North Carolingian to himself, I'll give you a little something extra. So he was encored at the end of a very heavy European program, and turned on all the brass in the place: trumpets over the entrance, trumpets up in the dome, trumpets over in the choir, and cranked the thing all the way up, and hit 'em with John Phillip Sousa's “Liberty Bell” March! Before he was done, “the thousands in the crowd were clapping, and dancing, and I looked down, and there was that same clergyman standing in the midst of a gaggle of 20 or 30 others, looking as if he'd been hit over the head with a cricket-bat. By the time I ended, there weren't enough stretchers in the whole city of London to carry out the corpses of the clergy!”

All together a delightful evening, even though accuracy often suffered for the sake of effect. Still quite enjoyable, though the aged audience meant an unending background of coughing, sneezing, and nose-blowing; tuneless humming along throughout the “Meditation” from Thais; and a constant accompaniment of hearing aids whistles. In spite of these small distractions, it was a concert in the bones, in the blood, in the gut. While he played a Bach Sinfonia, I never wanted it to stop. It was the rhythm of my body.

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