No ordinary organ exponent – Nathan Avakian is outside the box in Tauranga


Nathan Avakian’s wonderful Wurlitzer performance in early November 2014 was more than the advertised “Outside the Box” event. So much so that two mature concert attenders were disappointed that it wasn’t the usual style of Wurlitzer concert (whatever that may be). I on the other hand rocked my tiny socks off!

The Baycourt Community & Arts Centre publicity information was very clear about what we could expect from Nathan Avakian:

“one of the world’s leading theatre organists..a composer and performer of music

scores from the prestigious international Youth Silent Film Festival” with a

performance “combining the latest technology with the unique Wurlitzer organ…

experience the Mighty Wurli as you’ve never heard it before….”

My Mother learned to play the piano on one of those little, old pedal flat-out organs. She passed on a love of the soaring and wailing sounds of traditional (and often religious) organ music to me so when ARTbop’s scheduled reviewer wasn’t able to attend the Avakian performance I was there with undignified speed and delight.

With his own iPhone recorded multi-tracks Avakian proceeded to show the audience exactly what “young” and “Wurlitzer” mean with interpretations of music and standards of his parent’s generation (think a self piano duet Four Seasons medley). Avakian took to the Steinway to play a piece composed for a friend’s wedding, and Billy Joel’s “Rootbeer Rag”. His opening piece of music from Slum Dog Millionaire however exemplified the breadth of sounds the meld of technology + organ can produce.

Playing the Wurlitzer (or any organ) is a feat of co-ordination. The mirrored images of the Wurlitzer showing the flying fingers and constantly moving feet. Compared with piano playing the Wurlitzer is a major workout. It’s also fascinating when the sounds produced by the “other” instruments are created and on the balconies to the right and left of me ordered tinkling and banging is created.

Nathan Avakian is also self-promotionally articulate in the most appealing way. He speaks of his background (the influence of his parents’ Henry Mancini), questions the audience and promotes his CD’s for sale in the foyer. At intermission he’s surrounded by a cross-section of the audience and I hear “Do you play any Winifred Attwell.” – another series of sounds of my childhood. When I manage to get within talking distance, this extremely pleasant young man tells me he’s 23 years old and has completed a four-year degree at the State University of New York. The business card he gives me says “Music/Lighting Design. I notice the leather of the toes of his performance shoes have worn from soft black to grey.

It’s not the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at Baycourt. The audience is mixed. By appearance many are in my (officially old) age range. I also talk to a “granpa” who has brought along four of his grandchildren (youngest 4 years old) “to inspire them”. And that’s the thing about the performance and music I’ve just seen and heard: inspiring.

The second half is also an absolute delight. Nathan tells us about his theme music composition role for the International Youth Silent Film Festival. He then accompanies five examples of the short silent films. So good, hope this becomes a Bay of Plenty youth event.

At the end of the second half Nathan leaves the stage to on-going applause and cheers. His encore is the “The Flight of the Bumblebee” – it’s the Wurlitzer like you’ve never seen or heard it before!

If you didn’t see Nathan Avakian you missed something really, really special. I can only repeat what the Broome (Western Australia) Arts Mirror said “The next time Nathan Avakian comes to town, don’t miss him!” I’d like to add to that, don’t you miss him and make sure you encourage young people you know to go and see Nathan Avakian.

Rosemary Balu

You may also be interested to know that the Baycourt Wurlitzer organ has its own fascinating history. Arriving in New Zealand in 1926 from its United States factory of birth the Wurlitzer went first to Wellington’s De Luxe Theatre providing sound for silent movies.

In 1959 a theatre organ enthusiast, Eddie Aikin, purchased the Wurlitzer and it stood first in a former honey-packing shed and then the Tokoroa High School. It was purchased by the Tauranga 20,000 Club who donated it to the City of Tauranga where it was installed in the Tauranga Town Hall in 1972. On the demolition of the Town Hall the Wurlitzer moved to Baycourt Community and Arts Centre and by 1988 was playing again.

The Wurlitzer has its own support group – The Tauranga Theatre Organ Society, formed in 1987 to provide ongoing financial support and maintenance. Monthly meetings are held for members and friends to play and listen to the “Mighty Wurli”. Anyone who is interested in theatre organ music is invited to join and all ages are welcome. A single membership is $20. per year (a double is $25.) Membership entitles you to reduced Wurlitzer Organ concert tickets, newsletters and monthly meetings where you get to hear the Wurli in action.

The Society works closely with the Baycourt Community and Arts Centre and the Friends of Baycourt to promote and share knowledge about the organ. Take a look at (Taken from the Tauranga Theatre Organ Society promotional pamphlet).


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