In memoriam Carl B. Staplin

Carl Staplin

Carl Staplin

A week ago this evening, my principal organ teacher, Carl Staplin, died at almost 80 years of age. I studied with him from 1970-1974 when I was an undergraduate student at Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa. I’ll be making a quick trip to Des Moines tomorrow afternoon, and I will be one of the organists for his memorial service on Monday morning at First Christian Church, where he was the organist for decades, presiding over a 1956 Holtkamp organ of great integrity, if not great size.  Indeed, my first church job as a beginning freshman at Drake was as his assistant at First Christian. I had the opportunity week-in-and-week-out to hear him play repertoire, lead hymns (often with dazzling free accompaniments) and accompany the choir, which was conducted at the time by the late Allan Lehl, the director of choruses at Drake. That experience gave me a model to emulate for my 40-year (and ongoing) career that followed.

Carl was a brilliant teacher, patient, but insistent. He could always find something encouraging to say, even after the most dismal lesson. I don’t recall ever hearing him utter an unkind word. He had a friendly smile and greeting for everyone. Although all of his students were expected to study masterpieces of the organ repertoire, he also encouraged students to explore the repertoire of interest to him or her. My own senior recital had Bach, Sweelinck, Hugo Distler, the Roger-Ducasse “Pastorale” (What was he thinking!?), and Ligeti’s “Volumina,” that masterpiece of graphic notation with its use of the organ as non-traditional sound source. I’m sure Carl knew little about the piece when we started, but we plowed through it together. There are probably many teachers with whom I could have studied more repertoire; Carl insisted that things be very well learned over time and usually memorized. The result of that kind of study was that we didn’t necessarily cover lots of pieces but we learned how to listen and learn, a skill that has been my shield for all of my playing career and that has brought me performing opportunities that I might not otherwise have had. Most notoriously, that skill came into use once when I received the invitation in Cleveland with just two weeks notice to perform Jean Langlais’s Messe solennelle at which the composer himself would be present. Although I had heard Langlais’s mass before, I hadn’t played it. All worked out well for the performance.

Another aspect of Carl’s mentorship came in his encouragement of his students to follow their hearts in regard to their careers. I can’t imagine that he didn’t have some amount of disappointment when I decided not to pursue an advanced degree in organ and church music; I instead became a librarian. But if he was disappointed, Carl never uttered a single word of it to me. He has always been tremendously supportive of my library career, and seemed to be proud of my advancement to the upper levels of administration in a university research library. My library career, contrary to being a hindrance, has given me the opportunity to have a profession to “pay the rent,” but letting me pursue the musical career that I wanted, without having to depend on it for my living. It has for me been the best of both worlds, although not without some compromises in the amount of time I’ve had to practice. (Another example of using the skill of knowing how to learn quickly.)

The cadre of organ students at Drake became our ad hoc social group (very few of the students belonged to the Greek organizations that were the hub of social life for many at Drake). The parties at the Staplin home were legendary. Carl’s wife Phyllis, and his two children Elizabeth and Bill, put up with the uproar. Bill was a toddler at the time, and I think he often wanted us just to leave so he could get some sleep.

I’ve spent the last week reflecting on Dr. Staplin’s influence on my life and career, and even now I hesitate to publish this, because a few sentences cannot do justice to his life as a musician, academic, personal mentor and friend, husband and father. Rest well, Carl. Your legacy is secure in the lives of your students, family and friends.

Cameron Carpenter vs. the Mighty Wurlitzer in Akron

Cameron Carpenter

Last night I heard organist Cameron Carpenter perform at the Akron Civic Theater on its Wurlitzer theater organ, as part of a series sponsored by the University of Akron and E.J. Thomas Hall. Thomas Hall doesn’t have an organ, and Cameron’s long-awaited digital touring organ isn’t yet complete, so he had to do battle with the Wurlitzer, which put up a tough fight, including a couple of ciphers (notes that don’t stop playing when you release the key), but Cameron ultimately prevailed. The audience was slim, filling only the front section of the main floor of the theater. And if the sponsors’ plan was to entice younger people, it didn’t work—the audience was proportionally higher with gray hairs.

Cameron took his bad boy image to the max, at least during the first half of the concert, where he was sullen, sarcastic and never looked at the audience head-on during his remarks between pieces. (He sat half-way on the organ bench and looked at the wings of the stage.) And a lot of what he had to say was just pretentious bullshit, for example, his statement that in playing the Bach G Major Trio Sonata—a very difficult piece technically—one should just relax and let the music play itself. (Not that he cares one iota what I think.) If his idea is to draw new audience to the organ, it seemed an odd way to do it, unless the audience has masochistic fantasies. Do I really need to be talked down to? In the second half, he was remarkably more relaxed, even friendly, as if he had changed his attitude along with his costume.

All that said, there is no one else in the organ performing sphere that has Cameron’s technical skills, and his performances are riveting, if willful and infuriating. The only comparison that might be made would be to the French outlaw virtuoso Jean Guillou, in his prime. I found myself not caring in the least that Cameron’s performances were not “historically informed.” He also played to his own strengths, in his transcriptions and arrangements of other music, starting with an etude based on the first movement of Bach’s first cello sonata. The cello part was played in the pedals, with increasingly complex layering on the manuals above it. He also made an effective transcription of Liszt’s “Funerailles,” originally for piano. It seemed tailor-made for the theater organ. He ended the first half with an austere and mostly atonal composition by a Ugandan composer whose name I did not recognize. (And since there was no printed set list for the concert, I can’t confirm.) With massive sounds, including pedal chords, on full organ, it was as if Cameron truly was trying to test the Wurlitzer to its limits. There weren’t any ciphers after this piece, but there was one after Marcel Dupré‘s “Variations on a Noel,” which Cameron dissected and reassembled in his own fashion. (At least the cipher was on the tonal note of the piece.)

The second half was devoted to lighter fare, a medley of some Gershwin tunes, and ending with three relatively brief improvisations devised by the performer on the spot, including a concluding fugue recognizably, if loosely, based Beethoven’s famous piano piece “Für Elise.”

It was announced that Cameron Carpenter will be back next year with his new touring instrument. Maybe playing on a familiar instrument will put him into a better mood.

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