Editor’s Note: Broome Arts Mirror reviewer Nancy Oliveri was unable to attend the Binghamton Theater Organ Society’s recent concert and sent her sister in her stead.
Reviewed by Therese Bohn
If your Aunt Millie insisted on taking you to a theater organ concert, would you run for cover, imagining two long hours of roller rink promenades or solemn funeral home Muzak? Well, if she took you to “Outside the Box 2” with Master Theater Organist Nathan Avakian, she’d be your new best friend.
As the title suggests, the concert, presented July 20 by the Binghamton Theater Organ Society, was designed to break the barriers of traditional theater organ music, and it thoroughly delivered on that promise. With a variety of styles and some help from the Binghamton High School Steel Drum Band, Avakian presented not so much a concert but a showcase, and what a great show it was!
I had an opportunity to talk with Avakian after the show. His brown eyes sparkle when he discusses his love of the theater organ. As a boy growing up in Beaverton, Oregon, he became enchanted with the grand instrument at age four. Although he didn’t love early piano lessons, at nine, he happily began organ lessons. His budding talent and ambitions drove him to win the American Theater Organ Society‘s Young Theater Organist Competition in 2009.
At 19, barely out of high school, he completed his first Australian/New Zealand tour in 2011. Each successive tour steers him to greater creativity, and after each performance, he delights in hearing feedback from the audience, which, he says, inspires him further.   Knowing that he can make people happy doing what he loves the most makes his art all the more gratifying. It’s truly a dream career for him.
A little girl, seated not far from me at The Forum in Binghamton, turned to her mom when Avakian began and asked, “Is that a piano?”
No, little one, I thought, it’s not a piano; it’s not even a theater organ. It’s a flying carpet to take you anywhere you could imagine. Before long, the little girl was swaying in her mother’s arms.
Avakian started the show with pop singer Mika’s hit, “Grace Kelly,” performed with a dramatic, military assuredness. Changing gears, he then presented the first of two Disney melodies of the evening, “When She Loved Me”. The touching tune from Toy Story took on an air of a hymn through the pipes of the theater organ, making it a bit more melancholy than the original, but no less poignant. (It got this reviewer a little verklempt!)
A highlight of the show was a presentation of five original silent movie shorts that were the winners of this year’s International Youth Silent Film Festival. Avakian had composed three-minute original soundtracks to inspire entrants to create silent mini-genres of action (The Continuous Quest), romance (The Girl in the Camera), slapstick (Le Clown De L’amour), sci-fi (2) and hero (Baracco and the Suitors). The results were funny and surprising with lots of twists. I especially enjoyed Baracco… with its sinister moustache-twirling. Bless the kids who made these; it gives one hope that creativity still thrives in our youth, and that the art of silent-movie making is alive and well. (You can see Baracco here.)
The youth talent didn’t stop there. The Binghamton High School Steel Drum Band “The Juice Blenders” brought some swinging calypso beats to life with “The Bee’s Melody” by Lord Kitchner. Under the fatherly direction of band master Joel Smales, these kids were thoroughly absorbed in their rhythms, many of them swaying and smiling as they pounded away.
Avakian joined them in the next number, and who would have thought that a combination of steel drum and theater organ could mesh so nicely on The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”? But it did, and the blend of organ and drum continued in the second act, flowing like smooth Jamaican java in Tom Miller’s “Dancero” and a Disney medley of tunes from The Lion King, Tarzan and, of course, “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. Bliss.
Avakian may have loathed piano lessons as a kid, but that didn’t stop him from tearing into Billy Joel’s rippling “Root Beer Rag” on the grand piano, where he proved he is just as proficient. He is also a trained tap-dancer, and although he (unfortunately) didn’t do any hoofing, he did indulge with the Juice Blenders in a final medley of show stoppers from 42nd Street.
Still energized, he gave an encore of Joseph Wagner’s patriotic march “Under the Double Eagle,” which had me imagining Rudolph Valentino as a sleek soldier riding off on his horse. Avakian should definitely score a full-length silent film.
This was the second BTOS “Outside the Box” concert; I certainly hopes there will be a third. Or, better yet, it become an annual event. The next time Nathan Avakian comes to town, don’t miss him!