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
Island University (formerly Paramount Theatre) in Brooklyn NY. I had
heard that she was both good and unique, and made the decision to
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
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
She obviously favors blues and jazz styles. Indeed, for a ballad like
"Norwegian Wood" she managed to rock the place. She played some songs
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
Also, unlike many theatre organists, she will often play with both
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
touches (from staccato through portamento and legato to super-legato)
harmonic choices (thicker and closer harmonies for more intensity,
more notes simultaneously for more loudness). Also, she used the
effective swell shutters effectively to get seemingly different
[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
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
concert was not her style or technique. I was stunned by the passion
fire of her playing. Her jazz playing was incandescent. Her intense
for all the pieces she played was communicated to us all. When she
to us with considerable charm from in front of the console (seen only
silhouette -- the only lighting was on the console), she strode back
forth with great energy. It seemed like she couldn't wait to get back
the console and play some more. She also does something rare for a
organist: like truly great performers, she reveals something from
herself when she plays. Sometimes it was her obvious love of some pipe
sometimes a love of a melodic line. Sometimes it was the daring feeling
the intensity of jazz progressions, sometimes the humor inherent in a
about a prideful lady mincing down the street. There were no mere
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
and roar with a cheerful raucousness and abandon. I had no idea 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.
Williams is a unique and talented musician with a splendid passion
her. Of course, I can't help but wonder about other aspects of this
performer. Does she have similar fire in her frequent classical
[And, would they let her?] What would her theatre organ playing be like
she shook herself free of her disciplined arrangements and just
She is a person of considerable present-time accomplishment, and also
intriguing potential. I am looking forward to hearing more of her.
Article by Allen Walker: