‘Out of the box’ organ concert is out of this world

CORRECTION: Please note that the society’s website has been corrected from the original publication of this review.

Reviewed by Lee Shepherd

Nathan Avakian is the poster child for multi-tasking.

I’m talking about the multi-talented whiz kid who treated some 400 folks to a concert Tuesday night (Aug. 13) on The Forum’s Robert Morton Theater Organ.

A 22-year-old B.F.A. student in lighting design at Purchase College, Avakian went way “outside the box” to delight listeners of all ages.

Presented by the Binghamton Theater Organ Society, the multi-media concert had it all – from Medieval music to tunes by Three Dog Night, from rock to classical, from show tunes and Disney films to jazz melodies by Mancini and Dave Brubeck.

I’m not sure words can adequately describe Avakian’s style, which includes folksy and informative introductions by the young artist and performances that showcase every capability of the four-keyboard theater organ along with soundtracks controlled through an IPod and Avakian’s own arrangements and compositions.

As a bonus, he accompanied a series of silent films, all winners in a youth silent film contest, with his original compositions. Instead of creating music to fit a film, the international concert worked in reverse. Avakian’s music was posted on a website, and middle school and high school filmmakers were invited to submit films that fit the music. We enjoyed the three-minute-long winners in the mystery, horror, romance, slapstick and sci-fi categories.

Apparently, Avakian was fascinated by a theater organ at age 4, when his parents took him to the Portland Organ Grinder restaurant. With coaching since age 11 by Jonas Nordwall and Donna Parker, both well known in the theater organ world, Avakian won the American Theater Organ Society competition in 2009 and has been entertaining audiences with his concerts across the U.S. and internationally ever since.

He’s carved out a niche for himself by tasteful blending of 21st century technology with musical tributes to the historical legacy of the instrument. Because there were cameras aimed at his feet and hands and the feed was projected on a movie screen, every person had the best seat in the house, essentially sitting right next to the artist on stage.

Nothing if not versatile, he also played his compositions on the grand piano: “Sweet Surrender,” a beautiful, lyrical piece that evoked both Debussy and Chopin, and an unnamed rag that would have tickled Scott Joplin pink.

Avakian’s rendition of “Somewhere in Time” was exquisite. He pre-recorded the piano solo, then accompanied himself on organ. His lightning-fast “Bumble Boogie” propelled his fingers and feet faster than a bee honing in on the hive after a long day of nectar gathering.

The BTOS took the risk of alienating its largely older crowd by going “outside the box” with this concert. The only danger, and it’s a “too-much-champagne” kind of problem, is that an evening spent with Nathan Avakian is going to be a really tough act to follow.

COMING UP: The next BTOS concert features The General, Buster Keaton’s Civil War comedy, with accompaniment improvised by Jim Ford. The program starts at 2 p.m. Dec. 29 at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. Visit www.BinghamtonTOS.org, or call 722-0020 for tickets, or submit any unused ticket you bought during 2013 for admission.

 

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