First, let’s talk about the physical space. I’d been in the space that was formerly the Brooklyn Paramount once before, several years ago, to watch some roller derby on a winter’s night.What had previously been a 4,500-seat theater has, for the last few decades, been converted into the basketball court for Long Island University–meaning that gorgeous architectural features coexist with mechanically-operated bleachers and a hanging scoreboard.
On a humid day in the early fall, I returned to the space for a performance sponsored by the New York Theatre Organ Society. Renovations will soon turn this space back into a full-time theater, and before that takes place, this event was organized to showcase the 89-year-old Wurlitzer organ that’s been in the space since 1928.
The crowd was an interesting one to take in. At 40, I was on the younger side; when Mark Herman, who performed that day, spoke, he mentioned that people had flown in from multiple states to hear the Wurlitzer in action. Sitting not far from me was a group of men in monastic garb; other attendees sat in groups or by themselves.
Herman’s program seemed designed to showcase the organ’s capabilities, and the sheer physicality of the organ’s setup became apparent over the course of the afternoon. It was also largely comprised of pre-World War II music, largely from the theater world; among the highlights were Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” and a selection of Harry Warren compositions late in the program. During the occasional moments when the full expanse of sound was on display, the sheer volume and the resonance throughout the room was unlike anything I’d seen before.
The immersion of instrument with space gave me a fine reason to think about the way we listen to music in a very different way than I previously had. On the one hand, the closest comparison I can make is to the time I went to David Byrne’s Playing the Building installation a few years ago, in terms of its blend of a musical instrument and a physical location. On the other hand, there was also a substantial sense of history from this concert: it felt like hearing music from out of time in a space that seemed similarly caught between eras. Alternately, in the two hours or so that I was there, I watched a blend of instrument and architecture, of technical virtuosity and compositional chops. It was a glimpse of history, and a glimpse of a space that might soon recapture more of its old allure. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday in Brooklyn.