Rain or shine, a good place to be in Berkeley this weekend is indoors, listening to a memorable musical performance.
There are two special organ concerts on Sunday afternoon, each in an outstanding local setting.
At one event you can hear organ and vocal music in Berkeley’s most remarkable church, the Bernard Maybeck-designed First Church of Christ, Scientist, and help to preserve the landmark structure.
At the other, you can experience one of Berkeley’s great secular performance spaces, the Community Theater, and appreciate the grand tradition of “theater organ” music.
Unfortunately, both concerts start at virtually the same mid-afternoon time. The choice may be hard but whichever you choose, the experience should be satisfying.
To appreciate these concerts you need to put away any stereotypes of organ music being suitable only for weddings, funerals, and traditional Sunday hymns. In the hands of skilled musicians these organs, spiritual or secular, are wonderful instruments, capable of expressing a vast range of musical themes and traditions.
Community Theater Concert
The first concert on Sunday afternoon is sponsored by the NorCal Theater Organ Society, in the Berkeley Community Theater. The event starts at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.
The white-walled building is a masterpiece of mid-20th century Moderne architectural design and style, from the pleated, apple-green, seat supports in the immense oval auditorium to the sinuous, sky-high, bas relief sculptures on the exterior.
I must confess, however, that before attending a February concert there I had no idea that the Community Theater also contained a Wurlitzer organ and a “mighty” one at that. But now I know, and I’m enthusiastically converted.
If you’ve ever listened to an organ performance at a place like Oakland’s Grand Lake or San Francisco’s Castro Theater, you have a sense of what these instruments can do.
Their devotees are careful to point out that they are not just ordinary organs but “theater organs,” designed to accurately simulate the music of entire live orchestras.
Developed to accompany silent films, theater organs are played from an elaborate on-stage console, which gives the audience a good view of the energetic, sometimes acrobatic, performance techniques of the organist.
When he or she has all four limbs in motion, manipulating the polished wooden console with its hundreds of stops, keys, and controls that look as elaborate as those in a jet airplane’s cockpit, this appears to be one of the most athletic types of musical endeavor.
Berkeley’s organ—which rises from the floor on a moveable slice of stage—stands atop a lighted pedestal that glows, like the stage backdrop, with different colors to suit the mood of the music.
Hidden from sight, but not sound, are some 4,000 pipes and 40 tons of elaborate back and above-stage organ equipment at the Community Theater.
The organ can whisper soft music at the edge of hearing, rolic along in ragtime, tinkle with tiny bells, or roar out a stirring arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The NorCal Theater Organ Society keeps watch over the Berkeley organ and holds public concerts and members events there. This Sunday’s concert is the third in a series of four, each featuring a different guest organist.
Nationally known, Portland-based Jonas Nordwall is this weekend’s performer. He’s been a guest organist with several orchestras as well as an individual performer around the world, and has recorded 15 albums.
If Nordwall’s work is in the same league with David Wickerham’s performance at the second series concert on Feb. 6, this should be a great occasion. Wickerham, an ebullient organist from Florida, almost literally bounced up and down with delight at the opportunity to play the Berkeley theater organ, while he called “one of the very finest, not only in the country but in the world.”
Nordwall’s March 6 concert announcement promises music from the 1910s through the 1960s.
The Community Theater is at 1930 Allston Way, on the Berkeley High School campus. Buses, BART, and public and private parking garages are nearby.
Christian Science Church Concert
The second concert this Sunday musically illuminates one of Berkeley’s best known buildings, the First Church of Christ, Scientist. If you haven’t seen the inside of this amazing building before, this is a superb opportunity to visit and listen to it fill with music.
In designing the church, Bernard Maybeck orchestrated an eclectic hybrid of architectural styles, from Gothic to modern Industrial, in a way not seen before or since.
The building is one of his undisputed masterpieces, and one of Berkeley’s National Historic Landmarks.
William Ludtke will be at the organ for Sunday’s 3 p.m. concert.
Ludke is the regular organist at First Church, and also a noted local composer. He plans to play Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor,” as well as other selections.
Ludke will be accompanied by singers from the Pacific Boychoir Academy. Founded in 1998 and headquartered at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, the organization enrolls more than 100 boys, ages 7–17, in either day school or after school programs and five different choirs. Two of those choirs, the Troubadors and Changed Voices, will perform at the March 6 event.
Tickets for the concert fundraiser are $25 in advance, $30 at the door (if space is available).
The purpose of the First Church concert is not to raise the roof, but to repair it. The building dates to 1910 and needs a substantial amount of renovation work.
The church is at 2619 Dwight Way, corner of Bowditch Street. Paid parking is usually available in nearby University lots, and buses run nearby on Telegraph and College avenues.
For information on the NorCal Theater Organ Society, call 632-9177 or go to http://theatreorgans.com/norcal.
For information about the First Church concert and Friends of First Church, go to www.friendsoffirstchurch.org.