“It’s really just a big box of whistles.”
A fellow organist and audience member gestured towards the giant Wurlitzer regularly showcased in concert at the Berkeley Community Theater.
Once providing grandiose piped sound for churches and movie theaters across the United States, organs are now relegated to special events and formal weddings and funerals.
Yet, enthusiasts still play and perform classic organ pieces, and several shared insights into the instrument’s workings and history during Berkeley’s early November concert.
“Making music with air and pipes goes way back in history, at least to the ancient Greeks,” said Gordon Pratt, organ player of many years.
Over time, technology advanced so that organs became more elaborate, with larger instruments containing five levels of keys, and entire arrays of tabs and pedals for further sound variety. One may select the exact type of sound one needs by setting tabs for each pipe in particular ways before one begins playing, and sustain a note by pressing foot pedals.
Asked how an organ player could move his or hands up and down quickly enough to keep up with a musical piece, Pratt and others explained that one became better with practice.
“A piano has a long horizontal set of keys, and classical pianists learn to move their fingers where they need to go, so organists can do the same.”
Church organs are physically different from many instruments intended for old-time movie theaters. A theater organ can produce more vibrato for horror-style sound effects, while a church organ typically plays more melodious hymns. The Berkeley Theater’s Wurlitzer is capable of playing both styles of music, pulling off Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and music from the Phantom of the Opera with ease.
An older crowd attended the organ performance, many of whom remembered playing the instrument themselves at church or in high school. Volunteers sold organ music on vinyl records or cassette tapes. Yet not all the music played, either on the Wurlitzer or the accompanying piano, was nostalgic. We were also treated to the theme from Jurassic Park and a dramatic, complex rendering of the theme from the Man from Snowy River in addition to the classical pieces and old Broadway showtunes.
Many types of modern and traditional music can be performed on an organ – and the Berkeley Community Theater’s regular, monthly first-Sunday concerts invite the public to enjoy the art form.
More information on the Berkeley Community Theater and the organ’s workings and constructions here: http://www.atos.org/Pages/Journal/Berkeley/berkeley.html
First-timers are free for the relatively inexpensive concerts!