Carlo Curley, an enthusiastic concert organist and born showman, died yesterday at his home in Melton Mowbray, England, less than two weeks shy of his 60th birthday. No cause of death was given.
The North Carolina native was student of legendary American organist Virgil Fox, and spent much of his adult life careening around the world, sharing his love and curiosity about pipe and, later, digital organs. He had a popular touch, and was not shy about mixing pops repertoire with classical warhorses.
There is a Toronto connection with Curley: He was 30-year-old rising star when invited to perform at the newly built Gabriel Kney organ at Roy Thomson Hall in 1982. He loved the city, the instrument and the hall so much that he decided to make an album here. He also asked the Roy Thomson Hall board if they would consider making him a permanent curator of the instrument, in exchange for paid accommodations nearby.
The board politely said no, so Curley went on his way, making 15 commercial albums over the course of a career that included being the first organist to play in the White House.
Here’s a sample review that says everything we need to know about this unique and unusual artist, written by William Dart of the New Zealand Herald, in Sept., 2010:
Carlo Curley is marketed as the Pavarotti of the Organ. However, his Saturday night concert suggested there is also some debt to be acknowledged to Liberace and P.T. Barnum.
For nigh on three hours, including a riotously amusing pre-concert conversation with the suave Kerry Stevens, the American gave the King of Instruments the full showbiz treatment.
In interviews which were more like triggered monologues, Curley had us chuckling over such phenomena as the “legitimate leg massages” that the large vibrating organ pipes can bring.
He paid tribute to organists who had gone before, remembering the manic driving skills of Virgil Fox and the arthritic suffering of E. Power Biggs – “Your heart goes out, no matter what style he played in.”
In recital, Curley gave the Town Hall instrument a major work-out.
Pulling the tempi of the Londonderry Air like taffy to accommodate relentless registration changes may not have been to everyone’s taste, but myriad many magical colours were our reward.
Yet colours did not always run true. Some of the tonal palette brought out for his transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod seemed not so much high opera as homely funeral parlour.
Then there was the richly eccentric gimmick of an automaton of singing birds chirruping away during a John Stanley voluntary – warranting, as one might have expected, a humorous account of his tangles with customs over the bizarre twittering machine.
While purists may have shuddered at Handel’s Largo, signing off with what sounded like a revved-up Harley-Davidson somewhere in the pipes, John Ireland’s Elegiac Romance was a rare opportunity to sample a lesser-known gem of the repertoire, sensitively rendered.
And, for all the rip-roaring fun of the fair, Saint-Saens’ Marche Militaire Francaise filled the bill magnificently.
Best of all, this gentleman could not stop telling us how much he loved our new organ, a glorious specimen of “Empire organ-building gone bananas”, an instrument which “speaks with utter conviction but needs a stern hand to guide it”.
Curley’s guidance was not limited to the keyboard. As a closing gesture, he led us in a folksy sing-along to Goodnight Irene – the perfect showbiz envoi.
And here is the showman himself, loving the sound of his mellifluous voice as much as that of his organ: