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The Music Men

Keeping a Relic Alive In Boston's Hallowed Sports Venues

by Eric Wilbur

It’s Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, and Josh Kantor is feeling the intensity, even in his tiny booth high atop home plate at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox are trying to stave off elimination against the New York Yankees.

With every pitch comes momentary relief and stress in alternating order. But the Fenway organist does his best to play off the atmosphere of the moment—whatever that may be for every particular second that passes into the deep hours of the already long night. After all, Kantor understands his job at the old park is more than simply maintaining a little bit of Americana in the confines. What he plays resonates with the fans depending on the moment, and sums it all up with a few notes from his Yamaha organ.

“The atmosphere is more charged at those playoff games than at the regular season games, so it’s always an extra treat to play for those and to hear the intensity of the crowd response to what you’re playing,” said Kantor, who has been the organist for the Red Sox since 2003. “Those [are] very thrilling moments that I feel lucky to have played for. I remember the crowd energy was just so intense that they just responded to everything. It was almost too easy.”

Kantor’s colleague, Ron Poster, the organist for the Boston Bruins since 2001, describes the feeling in similar fashion.

“You reach this euphoric bliss state that’s unlike anything,” he said after the events of winning the Cup, getting to perform during the Duck Boat parade, and then receiving his hardware at the ring ceremony the following fall. “That hat trick of events of winning the Stanley Cup is undoubtedly the highlight.”

A campy relic of history aimed at injecting a sense of nostalgia into the game day experience, the organ does not simply endure at Boston sporting events. Like few other arenas or ballparks in America, organ music here still thrives.

It creates atmosphere relative to the game. It highlights nuances and moments with an abstract wink. It ties generations of Boston sports fans together with a wide spectrum of musical selections, whether it’s hearing “Paree,” by John Kiley — the patron saint of Boston organists — at the TD Garden, or Pharrell’s “Happy” at Fenway Park.

Josh Kantor at his usual post high above home plate.

“In Boston, I think that it plays to the long-standing traditional role that the organ has had with these teams and that these teams have had with the city,” Kantor said. “[Kiley] established and created this tradition that lasted for decades to the point where it’s something that people still want to have as the game experience here, which is great.”

Kiley, of course, is the answer to a long-standing trivia question: Who is the only person to have played for the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins? The longtime organist, who performed at Fenway Park from 1953 to 1989 and at the Boston Garden from 1941 to 1984, set the stage for hundreds of thousands of New England sports fans, whether it was setting the atmosphere as fans entered Fenway for the first time, accompanying Rene Rancourt with the singing of the National Anthem at the old Boston Garden, or his memorable rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” after Carlton Fisk and Fenway’s left field foul pole made World Series history in 1975.

“He’s sort of the local legend,” Kantor said. “He’s our godfather of what we do around here.”

Twenty-two years after Kiley’s death, his legacy remains an integral part of the experience at both Fenway Park, where Kantor is key to setting the mood at America’s oldest working ballpark, and the TD Garden, where Poster has added balance to what one local sports columnist has termed, “audio porn”: the blaring, suffocating game presentation that can tend to be heavy on screeching vocals and enveloping bass, and less an illustration of the circumstances taking place.

Enter a new generation of organists in Kantor and Poster, who have each been handed the organ torch for the respective teams in town, and both have embraced their roles thusly, with an appreciation for the job’s history, as well as the instrument’s place in a world of modern musical tastes. They’ve known each other for several years now (“good friends, better colleagues,” Poster said), and tend to run in the same musical circles in town.

“It’s been a great friendship and resource to have,” Kantor said one day last month, sitting alongside Poster in a Boston barroom, where the early-morning sunlight streamed through sparingly, but still managed to catch and illuminate the encrusted diamonds on Poster’s 2011 Stanley Cup championship ring and Kantor’s own 2013 World Series jewelry. The rings not only signify Boston’s recent stretch of fortune, but Kantor’s and Poster’s vital roles in those titles because of the impact each had on the games. Their song choices and musical reactions tend to evoke emotions in the crowd, and thus the players, resulting in a home-field and ice experience that can either bubble to a fervor, or hit the wrong notes entirely.

One of the main reasons why Kantor and Poster are so respected as house organists for the Red Sox and Bruins, respectively, is their keen ability to recognize the former, more often than not.

“Hockey is so fast,” Poster said, “so the interactions with the fans are fast. During the game, one of greatest moments is if we’re taking a face-off in our offensive zone, and I’m playing something, and it brings the crowd to a crescendo, and then we score three seconds later. And then the building erupts. That’s always a great feeling inside a game, when you can amp up a crowd to a level where it’s a frenzy. You feel like it’s pushing things in a certain direction, building the energy, and hopefully the team can feed off that.”

Poster and Kantor show off their hardware.

Poster has been at his gig with the Bruins since 2001, which means he’s played before some of the building’s lowest moments (the Dave Lewis era) and its pinnacles of achievement (the 2011 run to the Stanley Cup). He grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, a self-described “awkward kid,” who excelled in music during grade school. He ended up attending Berklee College of Music (but not graduating), and eventually adopted Boston as his home.

It was during that time period that Poster started going to a lot of Bruins games, back “when the team wasn’t that good, and you could get a ticket for $20 outside the Garden.”

“I would sit there with my buddy, and I would say, ‘Man, I could be the organ player for the Bruins.’ And he would say, ‘No you couldn’t.’ And I would say, ‘Oh yeah, I could.’”

He got the job after meeting the team’s director of game presentation at a holiday event he was hired for as a public address announcer. They talked about hockey for about half an hour, and then fired up the organ. That summer, Poster was invited to audition before Bruins front office brass, and 10 days later he got the call.

He could indeed be the organ player for the Bruins.

Across town, Kantor brings Fenway Park his musical roots from Athens, Ga. He moved to Chicago for high school, then made his way to Boston in 1990 to start college at Brandeis University. It was prior to the 2003 season that the Red Sox were looking for a new organist, and somebody working for the team at the time had recommended Kantor for the position. “I played a lot of things for a handful of people,” Kantor recalled.

Kantor provides entertainment outside of Fenway Park on Boylston St.

He’s been behind the keys at the park ever since, helping create the soundtrack to such moments as the 2013 World Series win over the Cardinals, and—Kantor’s personal, professional highlight—the 2004 American League Championship Series comeback against the Yankees. Of course, Poster also speaks in glowing terms about 2011, and the Bruins’ intense pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

“It’s games like that when your job is easy,” he said. “When everybody’s amped up, and they’re into it, and there’s a lot on the line, and things are going your way, it’s really easy to do your job.”

“And then, if you can take that, and imagine the opposite of that, and multiply it by ten times at least, when you’ve lost in the Stanley Cup playoffs, being one or two games away….That is the lowest of the lows.”

That is where the challenge lies in orchestrating feelings.

“It’s when you’re getting blown out that it’s really hard to do your job,” Poster said. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to insult the crowd’s intelligence by trying to make them happy when we’re getting blown out. You want to be respectful, you want to try and do the right thing, but that’s when it’s really hard.”

Kantor hasn’t experienced a gut-wrenching moment like Poster had when the Chicago Blackhawks scored twice in the final 58.3 seconds of Game 6 to win the 2013 Stanley Cup at the Garden. A close parallel would be Aaron Boone’s ALCS winner in 2003, a moment played out 200 miles to the south of Kantor’s pipes. Still, he has had to endure a World Series title bookended by a pair of last-place finishes for the Red Sox, which poses its own challenges on a game-to-game basis.

“Savvy fans will feel you’re insulting their intelligence if you play something too upbeat when the mood is down,” he said, calling the team’s last-place finish in 2012 under Bobby Valentine a learning experience for gauging what the crowd did and didn’t want to hear. “So you do have to kind of walk that line.”

Both organists also have to balance their acts with other in-game personnel at the Garden and Fenway. For Kantor, that means remaining in close contact and conversation with Fenway Park disc jockey TJ Connelly (also in his first year as the DJ for Patriots games at Gillette Stadium this season) via headset. What results is a process of planting the seeds for various scenarios that may unfold throughout the course of the game. Sometimes it’s planned out a little bit in advance, sometimes it’s very much responding spur of the moment to something that has happened right then and there.

“We have a great working relationship,” he said. “We do a little bit of planning before each game about some ideas that we have in mind that we think might work. Oftentimes those ideas don’t necessarily manifest themselves, or at least not on the particular night, because once the game starts, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re responding more to events that are transpiring in the game.

“I would just say it requires a very concerted communication effort especially in the last couple of years as we have started to occasionally field requests via Twitter from fans who are in the stands. Then we have to think, ‘Does that song fit into what we’re trying to do?’ And if so, we hope to be able to accommodate, so that we can have that connection with fans, and they can feel connected to the team in that way.”

The social media aspect of the job has definitely evolved over the last couple years, as Kantor and Connelly both embrace the tools in order to tailor a game being experienced by tens of thousands of fans.

“I’ve seen a handful of baseball and hockey organists around the league starting to use it to interact with fans more,” Kantor said. “Ron (@RonPoster) and I (@jtkantor) have both been on [Twitter] as an opportunity to interact directly with fans to get their feedback, to get their requests, to hear from them when they like what we’re doing, and when they don’t like what we’re doing. I really enjoy that part of it. It definitely does remind you that there are individuals in the stands instead of just a massive crowd.”

In addition to his Fenway duties, Kantor works parttime in the music library at Harvard University, and plays in three different rock bands, the most well-known of which may be The Baseball Project, featuring R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills, a group that has delivered such baseball-centric songs as “Stats,” “They Are The Oakland A’s,” and “A Boy Named Cy.” At varying levels of activity during different times of year, Kantor can also be found playing for local band Jim’s Big Ego, and another band called “The Split Squad,” a group spread out across the country that gets together and tours when the time allows.

“It’s fun,” Kantor said. “It’s stimulating. I love being connected to the community musicians.”

Meanwhile, Poster describes himself as a “keyboard hired gun,” performing as a freelance solo piano artist for celebrations, bars, and cocktail hours and in his own band, the Ronnie Ron Trio.  (He can also be heard at Les Zygomates, a wine bar close to South Station, at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Sunday brunch, and at “Sinatra Sundays” at Lucky’s Lounge.)

What are common requests?

“Everybody loves ‘Fly Me to the Moon,” Poster said.

There’s a timeless aspect to that Sinatra song, as there is to many of the selections that inspire Kantor and Poster in their performances at their respective arenas, yet always with a hint that makes the connection between music and sport, bridging not only fans and the game, but generations as well.

“One thing that we can do as organists in that regard is represent a variety of eras and genres as far as the songs that we choose to play,” Kantor said.

It’s why the organ remains integral in the daily game presentation. It illustrates and complements the game, instituting quiet commentary when warranted.

It’s more than a throwback feature in no small part because of the way Kantor and Poster have embraced their gameday roles, with a nod to the instrument’s history in the city and an understanding of a fan base that has, perhaps more than anything, made them requisite parts of the sports experience in Boston.

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