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Q & A: Organist Wiesner plays music he and audiences like

Sunday, May 20, 2012
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Organist John Wiesner sits at the Proctors organ, nicknamed Goldie. Wiesner will be playing the Wurlitzer organ in a free noontime concert on Tuesday.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Organist John Wiesner sits at the Proctors organ, nicknamed Goldie. Wiesner will be playing the Wurlitzer organ in a free noontime concert on Tuesday.

Clifton Park’s John Wiesner will see two old friends on Tuesday.

One is Jim Brockway, who lives in Cherry Valley. The other is Goldie, who resides at Proctors in Schenectady.

Wiesner and Brockway will team up to play Goldie, the mighty Wurlitzer theater organ that has been a fixture at Proctors since 1983. The free noontime concert is part of a series sponsored by MVP Health Care.

Wiesner knows Goldie well. When Proctors secured the 1931 music box from a private residence in St. Paul, Minn., he was in charge of installation.

The 68-year-old musician is happy to show off Goldie during the hourlong show and help the Wurlitzer make new friends.

MVP Health Care Organ Concert

WITH: John Wiesner and Jim Brockway

WHEN: Noon, Tuesday

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org

Q: John, how long have you been playing?

A: I got into playing the organ right when I came out of the United States Air Force. Don’t ask me for dates, I’m terrible at that. The first thing I wanted to do when I got out of the Air Force was learn how to play the organ. I had played some piano. I had my first organ, and somebody said, “You’re in electronics, we really need somebody who can fix organs.” I said, “First of all, let me learn how to play and then I’ll see if I can fix one.” For the rest of my life, I ended up being an organ repair technician and also repaired antique radios. I’m pretty well self-taught on the organ. I’ve taken a few lessons . . . I’m a seat-of-the-pants kind of player.

Q: How often do you play?

A: Right now, I’m a weekend organist. I play every Sunday at the Watervliet United Methodist Church and occasionally a concert here at Proctors theater, about once a year. I was also organist at the Rollarama Skating Center (in Rotterdam) for 40 years. We played for adult classic roller-skating.

Q: What’s the difference playing for a roller-skating crowd and a classic organ music-loving crowd?

A: First of all, a classical organ-loving crowd probably is not going to want to go to a theater organ concert, they’re probably going to want to go to more of a Bach or Mozart type of concert. The theater organ crowd likes the old music that was played during the theater days, also a lot of the old-type music that we all grew up with, tunes like “Blue Moon,” “Tea for Two” and “It Had to be You.” Those are the kinds of things that the theater organ lends itself to very well. The difference playing roller-skating music is you’re basically still playing those songs, but you’re playing them to a beat or under the cadence of the metronome. You’re really supporting people who are dance roller-skating and are doing waltzes, tango and foxtrots on roller skates.

Q: How do you like playing Goldie?

A: I always enjoy it, it’s a real pleasure. First of all, it’s just an incredible instrument and nothing else sounds like it, except another Wurlitzer theater organ.

Q: Is there a big difference between a Wurlitzer and a church organ?

A: A huge amount of difference. The theater organ is basically geared to supporting the vaudeville and silent movie days of the theater with many added sound effects, whereas a classical organ is more geared to supporting church worship services and also performing works by Johann Sebastian Bach, classical organ pieces. The sounds are vastly different; the theater organ has a lot of tremulant whereas the regular classical organ is more of a straight tone.

Q: What kind of sound effects can you pull from the Wurlitzer?

A: You can play thunderstorms, railroad trains going along, marching bands coming down the street, John Philip Sousa marches, very romantic music. There’s the whoopie whistle, the wolf’s whistle. There are doorbells. Back in the silent movie days, when somebody would approach a front door, you would activate the doorbell. I spent quite a bit of time in England, and there’s a sound effect in England that’s pretty unique that’s called crockery smash, that’s when somebody would throw a plate.

Q: Some people think about the organ and they think it’s a sinister instrument because of its association with horror movies and mad organists. What’s your opinion?

A: It’s definitely not a sinister instrument; it’s a very beautiful instrument. The one that everybody classically thinks of for the sinister sound is when they play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on Halloween night with the wind blowing in the background. That tells somebody that the organ is sinister, but that is a beautiful piece of music. It’s just how one perceives it.

Q: Can you describe the show on Tuesday?

A: We’re going to play what we call our favorite tunes, a mixture of music that we think people might enjoy. We also play things we are comfortable with playing so we’re not making absolute fools of ourselves when we’re up there. I’ll be playing light tunes like “Harbor Lights,” “Blue Moon,” “I Cover the Waterfront.” Jim, being from Cherry Valley and Cooperstown, he always plays “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and he likes to end on a patriotic note. Jim’s the one who usually finishes up the concert with something like “God Bless America.” The hour seems to go by fast.

Jim and I have done seven concerts together and I consider him a very, very close friend and a wonderful human being. I wouldn’t want to be playing a concert with any other person.

Q: Is there a small club of people who play Goldie at Proctors?

A: We’ve got quite a few people, I’d hate to leave anybody out. We’ve got Carl Hackert, we’ve got Mark Fredericks, we’ve got Ned Spain.

Q: Do different organists bring different sounds to a concert?

A: Absolutely. Everybody is as different as night and day. Often it’s stuff we enjoy. At the last noonday concert, the guy is very adept at playing polkas, he did a lot of polka stuff and he blew people away with some amazing polka things.

Q: People who play saxophone or violin can take out their instruments any time to practice. But you get Goldie when you can. Is it hard to get going again with relatively little practice?

A: It is. Because of the limited practice time, we have to get our act together pretty quick. Usually, we get a couple hours on late, late Monday before the thing and maybe a few hours if we’re lucky Tuesday morning, the day of the concert. You never have enough practice time to really make the concert stellar unless you’re already a stellar theater organist. Some of them are; I don’t classify myself in that way.

Q: Are some songs hard to play on Goldie?

A: Yeah. I avoid playing them. The worst thing you can do when you’re playing an organ concert like this and you’re not doing it every day, there’s a certain amount of nervousness that goes with going up there once a year without a heck of a lot of practice and wishing you’re not going to make a fool of yourself. The worst thing you can do, and I’ve seen it happen, unfortunately, is bring a difficult piece of music, put it way up on this music rack with old eyes with bifocals and trifocals, all kinds of lights and pressure on you, and try to fake your way through that difficult piece of music. People are not going to like it and you’re not going to feel very good about yourself. Stick to things you know.

Q: What do you think the attraction is, people who want to hear music on this old-time instrument?

A: I can put it another way — just turn on the radio and listen to what’s available on there for music. All of a sudden, this thing sounds wonderful. We relate to this kind of music, as a lot of people who come to these concerts have a lot of gray hair, including yours truly. We relate to this kind of music, we liked it, we listened to it on the radio growing up, we heard it, it somehow spoke to us and we want more of it.

 
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