Organist wants instrument, performer front and center

Organist Carlo Curley will play Sunday at the First United Methodist Church’s concert series in Sche
Carlo Curley will play Sunday afternoon at the First Methodist Church in Schenectady.
Carlo Curley will play Sunday afternoon at the First Methodist Church in Schenectady.

For decades, organist Carlo Curley has preached from his own pulpit on a single theme.

“Organ needs more missionary work than the other instruments,” Curley said recently from North Carolina. “It’s because of its connection to the church. Usually, the organist is behind the ‘modesty curtain’ where dusty, well-thumbed scores are. You never see the organist. I want the organ and the organist out where the audience can see.”

On Sunday, concert goers to the First United Methodist Church’s concert series, will have no trouble viewing both. That delights Curley. “Would Heifetz ever fiddle from behind the potted palm?” he said with a laugh.

Musical family

Curley was attracted to the organ because of its symphonic-like capabilities. Born in 1952 into a musical family in North Carolina, he began piano lessons with his grandmother at age 4. By the time he was 18, he was the organist and choirmaster at Philadelphia’s Chapel of Girard College. Curley went on to study with the dean of American organists, Virgil Fox, and later with Britain’s foremost organist, Sir George Thalben-Ball, who taught him one of his most important lessons.

Curley was already developing a rather colorful style of playing and wanted to impress Thalben-Ball with his technique; so he really pulled out all the stops.

“I expected the accolades when I finished, but instead he said, ‘My dear, you don’t show everything in the shop window at first,’ ” Curley said. “I was never so deflated.”

Every since, he’s careful to vary his programs by beginning with pieces that use the organ’s softest stops and build from there. He also learned something from Russian pianist Lazar Berman that changed his direction. Many organists use transcriptions to augment the organ literature. Curley likes to arrange songs rather than symphonies, he said.

“I remembered Berman’s transcription of a song that he played at a recital and my hair stood on end. He made the piano sing. I wanted to do that,” Curley said.

His Sunday program will therefore include originals and Curley’s arrangements of gentle Welsh and Irish airs, several favorite works by J.S. Bach, a famous Handel Largo, a concerto by 18th century composer John Stanley, and works by Walford Davies, Beethoven, Wagner, Jean Langlais, Marcel Dupre, J.L.Dussek, and a toccata on themes from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”

This diversity and Curley’s missionary zeal are part of what has allowed Curley to be that rarity: one who travels the world unsupported by a teaching or church post to give about 100 concerts a year.

Sometimes, his concerts are more painful then pleasure, he said, because the venues don’t have a decent pipe organ and he’s wondered how he was going to play on it. Things like dead notes, dirt in the reeds, and bad or out of tune regulations (voicings) make the organ sound like a bad accompaniment to a silent film. Fortunately, Curley has a working knowledge of organ construction and can usually get around the problems, he said.

But he loves it when he plays on one of the great pipe organs of the world that are regularly maintained so all their colors shine. One of his favorites is the organ at Westminster Abbey in London, which was rebuilt a few years ago with enhancements that included a royal trumpet stop.

“There were no bumps, dynamically it terraced immediately. It was seamless. I was blown away,” he said.

He also loves to play the Wanamaker organ at Macys Center City in Philadelphia, considered the largest pipe organ in the world, and the organ in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City because its colors peal thrillingly.

Some of Curley’s concerts have been for more select audiences, such as several appearances before crowned heads. Those include the late Princess Grace of Monaco, the Danish, Japanese, and the British royal families, and two private recordings for the Sultan of Oman. He also played for Jimmy Carter when he was governor of Georgia and when he became president.

“I knew him from a Baptist church in Georgia when Carter gave lay sermons and I was playing the postludes — some of J. S. Bach’s party pieces,” Curley said. “Carter would stay and listen. He was gobsmacked. He loved good music from Bach to Dolly Parton.”

Curley later played at the governor’s mansion with a string quartet and at the White House. Because there was no pipe organ at the White House, however, Curley had to bring a digital touring organ, which samples pipe organ sounds. To date, he’s still the only organist to have played that venue, he said.

Many recordings

Curley has recorded more than 25 discs. His most recent is “The Art of Carlo Curley” (Trump). He also has appeared frequently on British television (Curley lives in Great Britain) in his own specials and in shows on pipe organ design and construction. Britain’s Classic FM radio station features his hour-long Christmas program each season.

He wrote his autobiography, “In the Pipelines” (Harper Collins) in 1998.

Curley recently learned that Pope Benedict the XVI, who plays the piano, has a brother who is an organist.

“The pope wants to bring back the traditional music of the church and have it played well,” Curley said. “This could be a shot in the arm for Catholic parishes.”

And Curley will be there to perform.

“If I can move a listener to go beyond the mechanics of the beast, I’m thrilled. I love to play organ,” he said.

Carlo Curley

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: First United Methodist Church, 603 State St., Schenectady


MORE INFO: 374-4403

Categories: Life and Arts

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