Ray Castoldi’s 27th season as the organist for the Knicks and 25th for the Rangers has already been like no other, largely because of the handsome Roland AT-900 organ that now hunches in a tiny booth five stories above the arena floor at Madison Square Garden.
Compared to a mere keyboard, which Castoldi had played at the Garden since 1989, the Roland, known generically as a theater organ, is a step up in class as well as a step back in time, to when ballparks and arenas were fitted with booming organs that provided warmer, richer, deeper sounds to sporting events.
“To a lot of people, it feels like sports,” Castoldi said as he sat at the organ two hours before a recent Rangers game.
Castoldi, 53, a classically trained musician with horn-rimmed glasses and a shaggy mane of dark hair, is the music director at the Garden, which means he also handles recorded music at Knicks and Rangers games. He wrote one of the N.H.L.’s most famous goal songs, “Slapshot,” which debuted in 1995 and is played after the Rangers score at home, with fans heartily singing along.
Castoldi bent to the trend of playing more recorded music during sporting events, but he grew up in New York idolizing organists like Jane Jarvis at Shea Stadium and Eddie Layton, known as Limo, at Yankee Stadium. Gladys Goodding not only played at the old Garden on Eighth Avenue but also at Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field.
“There’s an organ tradition here in New York,” Castoldi said. “It’s one of the places where it started in the days before you had recorded music available.”
Castoldi’s boss, Marc Bauman, the senior vice president who produces in-game entertainment at the Garden, had a chance to buy a floor model Roland from a dealer on Long Island. Although it is a digital organ that can produce many types of sounds, the Roland can, perhaps best of all, reproduce the thunderous, pipe-organ sound of a Wurlitzer.
That was the sound of sports in a smoky old arena — now the Garden has it, without the smoke.
“People absolutely connect to it,” Bauman said. “This brings us back from all the popular stuff you listen to everywhere else you go. Once you hear this is a much richer tapestry of sound, people say, ‘Oh, I get it.’ A large part of the audience at games are adults, and the moms and dads heard this sound when they are kids.”
Castoldi is happy to report that the number of arenas with live organists is growing, to 22 at his last count. Four N.H.L. arenas now use theater organs, including the United Center in Chicago; the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul; and Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., where the 24-year-old Lightning installed a pipe organ in 2010 for a more authentic hockey experience.
“There’s like a revival going on,” Castoldi said.
Castoldi does not play at every Knicks and Rangers home game, but, with the new organ in place, he has found himself playing at more games so far this season. He is also playing the new organ more often than he played the old keyboard, because, as Bauman said, it offers more bells and whistles.
“I’m playing better,” Castoldi said, smiling. “There’s more variety, just more fleshing out the songs.”
Seven minutes before the Rangers took the ice for a pregame warm-up against the Chicago Blackhawks last month, well before most of the crowd arrived, Castoldi got on the Roland and played “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” layering in the sound of bells to the tunes.
The Rangers came out to the sound of recorded, pulsating music, but when they retreated to their dressing room to prepare for the game, Castoldi got back on the organ and played “New York, New York,” which Layton, who died in 2004, loved to play on the Hammond organ at Yankee Stadium.
“I spent a lot of time at the Stadium stealing everything I could from the guy,” Castoldi said of Layton.
Castoldi roused the fans by playing the “Let’s Go, Rangers!” chant midway through a scoreless first period, then saluted the musician Greg Lake, who died last month, by playing “Karn Evil 9,” by the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer, during the first-period intermission.
After the Mets pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey, sitting in seats close to the ice, were shown on the big screen, Castoldi serenaded them with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He also played ominously after the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game, and fans joined in the refrain when Castoldi played “Tequila” between the second and third periods.
Castoldi played “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” again when the Rangers played the Devils a few days later, but added a twist for longtime Rangers fans between the first and second verses. He played the musical introduction for the famous chant that ends with the salty taunt of the former Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin. Many fans joined in, merrily.
Castoldi said the pace of hockey games offered more chances to play than basketball games. And organ music seems to be tied more closely to hockey than basketball.
The new organ has also generated interest from New York musicians who want to accompany Castoldi on their instruments at games. Shawn Pelton, the longtime drummer in the “Saturday Night Live” band on NBC, has supplied drum tracks to add punch to the sound of the organ.
“You can tell in a second when something is canned,” Castoldi said.
Castoldi has taken on bigger challenges. When the Garden played host to the Republican National Convention in 2004, six Liberty games were played at Radio City Music Hall, with its 4,410-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer.
Castoldi described the experience as “like an awakening. I played the organ, and the organ won.”
But now he has a manageable new friend in the Roland AT-900.
“This is something I’ve always wanted,” he said, adding, “For me, it’s like the whole thing has come full circle.”
Correction: January 3, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated when the musician Greg Lake died. It was in December, not “this month.” An earlier version also misspelled the surname of the former organist at Madison Square Garden and Ebbets Field. She was Gladys Goodding, not Gooding.
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