Cameron Carpenter, organ
Orchestra Hall, Detroit
February 23, 2015
Organist Cameron Carpenter walked out on the stage of a sparsely populated Orchestra Hall in Detroit Monday evening (Feb. 23rd) to play the International Touring Organ, an electronic instrument he designed to liberate himself from aging and often badly maintained pipe organs. He’s like a kid with a new toy (I use the word he used himself) and his joy in exploiting its possibilities sometimes got the better of him, but it was an infectious joy that he shared with the five hundred or so folks in the hall who responded with whistling and stomping standing ovations.
His instrument, built by Marshall & Ogletree in Massachusetts and completed last year, contains sampled stops from organs of different periods and styles all over the world — baroque, romantic, theater organs of the “mighty Wurlitzer” type, there’s probably even a Hammond in there someplace. It can all be disassembled and packed into a van, albeit a pretty big van, for transport to anyplace with an electrical outlet to plug it into. It’s a novel concept, and really the only way to allow for the career as a touring virtuoso that Carpenter has embarked upon.
Mr. Carpenter takes a good deal of abuse from the traditional-minded in the organ world, though rarely from its most accomplished players. Some of it stems from his punk-radical dress and hairstyle which, incidentally, does not interfere with his articulate and intellectual way of explaining to the audience what he does. Other criticism is directed against his taste for flashy virtuosity in performance, which drives serious practitioners of historically informed styles crazy.
What is beyond dispute is that Cameron Carpenter is a performer of nearly superhuman technical accomplishment. He does things with his hands, feet and brain that ought to be impossible, juggling five or six independent musical lines among them, sometimes playing on four keyboards at a time with his two hands and thanks to a pedal divide feature, two more with his feet, all without a flinch or a bobble. He’s the Horowitz of the present generation, and incidentally, the grand old man was criticized for historical inappropriateness and bad taste too. People with skills on that level make their own rules, as they should.
His program, announced from the stage with some good humored commentary, covered a big stretch from J. S. Bach — the Prelude in A Major and the big Toccata in F Major taken at a quick clip and with enough colorful registrations to stoke the purists ire — to an encore of Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind that shimmered like a gamelan orchestra. In between there were Marcel Dupré’s Variations on a Christmas Carol, and Carpenter’s own spectacular transcriptions of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture, Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and Alexander Scriabin’s 4th Piano Sonata. Only in the last did I miss the original, the piano’s sustain pedal gives a hazy perfume that is simply not available on the organ but badly needed in this work. I also thought that throughout the program Carpenter was a little too enamored with the battery of super-low bass stops at his disposal, but then if you’ve spent a couple of million to be comprehensive, I suppose you feel like you ought to use them.
Really, it’s pointless to criticize Mr. Carpenter as a classical organist. What he’s doing with — and to — his innovative, purpose-built instrument hasn’t been done before. Love him or hate him, he’s an astonishing, and astonishingly original, artist.