World-famous musician Carol Williams will come to Martinsville on Sunday to release the power of the most versatile instrument.
She will present the first concert in Robert Chapman’s 4 Sundays @ 4 organ recital series, at 4 p.m. at First Baptist Church, 23 Starling Ave., Martinsville.
What is significant about the organ is “the power, the range of colors of sounds, and you can really make people stop in their tracks and just listen,” Williams said.
She has played famous organs the world over, including at Notre Dame shortly before the Paris cathedral was damaged by fire, in England for Princess Diana and in Russia.
Williams got started in organ when she was 4 years old, living in the United Kingdom, and her grandmother sent her to dance classes.
“I just stood by the piano … I didn’t want to dance,” she said.
It was the music that captured her attention.
She could read music before she could read letters, and by age 7, she said, she had made up her mind that she was going to be a concert organist.
As a child, she had hated school, she said. However, at the “very competitive” Royal Academy of Music in London, she was motivated “with similar people who were all kind of crazy like me, wanting to do music.
“I loved studying in London because you had access to all the major concert halls and big organs,” she said. She continued her studies with master musicians in Paris, at Yale and at the Manhattan School of Music.
With music, “I’m a bit outrageous,” not limited to any particular style, although she professed a fondness for American jazz. Her husband is a drummer, and “we play a lot of fun stuff together,” she said.
She gets away with more in America, she said: “It’s a bit more open-minded in this country. Europe is more strict. You can play more variety in this country, which is why I love being here” for the past two decades.
“I have been a bit naughty at times, but not anymore” with music, she added.
For 16 years she was the San Diego (Calif.) Civic Organist and Artistic Director of the Spreckels Organ Society. She now lives in Lynchburg, where she is the concert organist and instructor of organ at Randolph College.
For Sunday’s program, she’ll start out with some traditional music such as Bach, “then move right through to ‘Take Five,’ jazz and will have a musical tour around the world. We’ll stop in Paris, might go to Moscow for Tchaikovsky and [also have] a lot of American jazz.
“If people have never been to an organ concert … just come along. It’s going to be fun. I don’t do dreary,” she said.
‘Whole bunch of instruments in one’
To hear Robert Chapman talk, the organ doesn’t have the respect it deserves.
“Most of the time when it’s played it’s either in churches or funeral parlors, and they’re not played very excitingly, and it’s unfortunate,” he said.
“The organ is a whole bunch of instruments in one. You have four different families of tones on the organ, and they’re all divided into groups themselves,” he said.
“The neat thing about the organ is that you can do things on an organ it might take four or five people to do” otherwise, said Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church organist Peter Ramsey, who has performed in 4 Sundays @ 4 concerts.
“The organ has a lot of different sounds to it, flutes, trumpets, clarinets, oboes, so the range of the kinds of sounds you can get out of the instrument gives you a lot more versatility and you can expand what you play,” Ramsey added.
“Knowing what all the different things are … professional organists are going to bring out just about everything that instrument can do,” Chapman said.
When he plans an organ concert, Chapman said, he tells the organist to “make it exciting, like you’re trying to see the organ to a committee. What are you going to do” to get people enthused about it?
“When you hear Carol Williams playing, she’s got energy, and she’s been playing for years as a civic organist in San Diego to big crowds of people where she has to do something exciting,” he said.
“This lady coming, she’s some hot shot,” said Martinsville pianist and organist Betsy Haskins of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church. “We’re looking forward to her. The choices that he’s made have been good for the community.”
Chapman also has used the event to spotlight local talent “He has asked people who, like myself, are not contract musicians but just good church organists, and that means a lot,” Haskins said.
Four decades of the series
As he has said would be the case for the past year or two, this year’s 4 Sundays @ 4 series will be Robert Chapman’s last.
However, this time he said it a bit more convincingly than in the past, and he didn’t joke back as much when challenged that he would change his mind.
This is Chapman’s 40th year of the series, the first 27 in Roanoke and then in Martinsville, since he moved to the area to become the music minister at Broad Street Christian Church.
He is a member of the Roanoke Chapter of American Guild of Organists, and that association has helped him keep the series strong and remain connected with regional musicians. That group is the sponsor of Williams’ performance on Sunday.
Normally, musicians aren’t paid, but donations from the audiences are used to give traveling stipends for them, he said.
“I’ve never passed the basket. I put a basket at each doorway and invite people to be generous,” Chapman said.
Past organ series have been four Sundays in August, but this year, it will be the fourth Sunday of each month through September.
Jill Gardner, the director of music ministries at First United Methodist Church, will perform at her church on July 28; Aaron Garber of Moneta on Aug. 25 at First Baptist Church; and Chapman and friends for the series grand finale Sept. 22 at Broad Street Christian Church, all at 4 p.m.
“When it comes to my turn in September, I’ve got to come up with some good, fun stuff,” Chapman said with a laugh.
‘A good experience’
The series “has been an overall good experience for the community. In a non-church setting it gives people a chance to come in, and if they appreciate the organ and they enjoy it, that’s wonderful,” Ramsey said. If they are intimated, “it gives them a chance to know the organ on its own terms without the encumbrance of church, and that can be off-putting for some people.”
Chapman “has a really good sense of” music and musicians, Ramsey added. “Being able to put together a program like that, you need to know some people. He’s a good organizer that way.”
Chapman also is the director of a community handbell choir which usually performs in the winter and spring.
“I am his number one fan, both him as a person and a as musician, being dedicated to spreading music everywhere he goes,” Haskins said. With organ music “the interest is not what it was in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but he has hung tight.”
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.