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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Cameron Carpenter on NPR

Our boy wonder organist Cameron Carpenter was featured this past Sunday with a 13-minute story on NPR‘s Weekend Edition Sunday.  He demonstrates the organ at Middle Collegiate Church, including an improvisation on the WESun theme.  The NPR page for the story also includes the video of Cameron playing the Chopin Revolutionary Etude (from Cameron’s CD/DVD release.)  In the NPR story Cameron compares himself as a showman not just to Virgil Fox but also to theater organ great Jesse Crawford, who made the Hammond Organ famous.  Why not Ethel Smith, whose most famous number was “Tico Tico“?

Cameron Carpenter’s “Revolutionary” CD

So what does one do when one is a twenty-something organist graduate of Juilliard, has already learned all of Bach’s organ works, as well as a lot of other standard repertoire and other goodies such as the almost impossibly difficult Demessieux Six Etudes for Organ? If you’re Cameron Carpenter you set about to re-make the organ as a concert instrument for the 21st century and to market yourself as a rock-star organist bad boy. His debut CD on Telarc, “Revolutionary” is bound to piss a lot of people off. (My hunch proved corrected when I glanced at the buyer comments in the iTunes store for this release. Such hostility, which used to be reserved for kindred spirit renegade organists of an earlier generation such as Virgil Fox and Jean Guillou!) Like Virgil Fox, Cameron plays a “virtual organ” in Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York, built by Marshall & Ogletree. Since it is based on electronics, it has the capacity to “change its skin” and sometimes sound like a theatre organ, as well as a standard church pipe organ.

The bottom line here is that Cameron Carpenter is immensely talented, but the album is not entirely successful. In fact, the title track, Chopin’s Etude, op. 10, no 12 in C minor, “The Revolutionary,” is for me most dependent on its visual aspect, since he plays the arpeggiated “left hand” part entirely with his feet in the pedals. (Somebody at Telarc must have figured that out as well, because there is a Bonus DVD included with the CD that includes Cameron playing the Chopin Etude.) Unfortunately, it has something of the aspect of an astonishing parlor trick. It’s hard to believe that he’s doing it unless you see it.

Happily, most of the rest of the album is much more successful. For me the high point is Cameron’s transcription of the Liszt “Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (The Dance in the Village Inn)”. He makes the piece his own in his organ “orchestration.” The playing is musical, as well as being technically accomplished.

His performance of the last of the Demessieux Etudes (“Octaves”) makes me wish he would record the whole collection. It is performed “straight” without a lot of registrational hanky-panky. Likewise, his performance of Marcel Dupré’s “Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op. 7, No. 1” is relatively straightforward.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “Evolutionary” Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, Cameron’s own concoction including every gloss that other transcribers have ever included on Bach’s indestructible warhorse. And I miss the point of the mash-up of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” with Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” in a theatre organ style that would make Radio City Music Hall proud. Bach’s chorale prelude on “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, is performed almost as if he’s putting us on–after all the hijinks that have preceded this track, he plays in a quasi-historically-informed manner. It is “correct” within an inch of its life. Please, more Liszt!

There are also two of Cameron Carpenter’s own compositions included on the album. The more successful of the two is his “Homage to Klaus Kinski,” with his use of thematic material and the mastery of the colors of the organ. He writes for his own performing skills as well. It probably makes quite an effect in live performance.

The is not a perfect album; there are parts of it that I find self-indulgent and irritating, but that’s okay. I wish that more organists would take these kinds of risks in programming and performing. It’s possible to do that even without having Cameron Carpenter’s amazing technical skills. Organists wonder why the organ is dying; as is evidenced by the audience reaction when I heard Cameron Carpenter perform in Minneapolis this past June, even the organist-centric world is longing for somebody to capture audiences’ attentions and turn the organ into something viable for the future.

As a postscript, I would note that Cameron Carpenter’s effectiveness as a performer depends in large part on a huge organ with all the modern mechanical conveniences (especially a well-developed combination action–pre-sets that can drastically change registrations with a push of a button.) One has to assume that he would not accept an engagement on an organ such as I play every week–35 stops with completely mechanical action and no combination action. How (or could) he modify is performance style to deal with a less elaborate instrument? It is tantalizing to speculate how it would affect his programming.

One presumes that this won’t be Cameron Carpenter’s last CD. At least I hope not.

Cameron Carpenter: back at it

When was the last time your church organist looked like this?
Cameron Carpenter: When was the last time your church organist looked like this?

A couple of months ago I wrote about the performance that the remarkable young organist Cameron Carpenter gave for the national American Guild of Organists convention.  Now he’s about to release his first CD on Telarc, “Revolutionary”, which promises to be as eclectic (electric?) and provocative as his AGO performance.  The CD is scheduled to be released on September 28 September 23 (see comment below).  In the meantime Cameron is giving several performances the end of this week (September 26 and 28) on a new Marshall and Ogletree “virtual pipe organ” at Middle Collegiate Church in New York.  (The “virtual pipe organ” is an electronic instrument in which entire ranks of pipes sampled from other organs are assembled to create a “virtual instrument.”  The first major example of this technology was the organ at Trinity Church, Wall Street, installed after the church’s pipe organ was destroyed by the effects of the 9/11 attacks.)

Improvisational Inspiration
Michael Phelps: Improvisational Inspiration

The programs will include “standard” repertoire (sometimes fixed up by the performer); transcriptions of orchestral works and movie scores; and several improvisations, including one honoring Olympian Michael Phelps.  (Hmm… how does one do a musical portrait of a dorky guy with a big chest and big feet?)

There’s more about the “Organ Exposé” that is the larger event surrounding Cameron’s concerts at www.organexpose.com.  The concerts are also going to be webcast at the Organ Exposé web site.

Cameron Carpenter, outlaw virtuoso organist

Last week I was at the national convention of the American Guild of Organists in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.  Too much for one post, so I’ll be adding several posts about events of note over the next few days.  The of the most outrageous recitals (in a mostly good way) was Cameron Carpenter’s program. He shared the recital with his former Juilliard teacher John Weaver.  Mr. Weaver is a player of the older generation, very elegant and musical.  At the conclusion of his set (for which he received a well-deserved standing ovation), he introduced Cameron as a “talent of Mozartean proportion.”  Mr. Weaver went on to say that although Cameron was his student for a year, he didn’t teach Cameron anything, but rather the Juilliard School paid him to listen to Cameron every week for an hour.

Cameron Carptenter is trying to bring the organ to a new audience—he’s out to be the rock star of the organ world.  He has more pure technical ability that anyone I’ve ever heard (with the possible exception of the young Jean Guillou) and he feels free to make music his own.  Fifteen or twenty years ago AGO audiences would have been outraged (in a bad way) by his performance, because it in no way matches any kind of “historically informed” performance practice.  Now people look more for musicianship, musical communication skills, and even showmanship, all of which Cameron Carpenter has by the boatload.  On his program he played music as diverse as one of Jeanne Demessieux’s nearly impossible Etudes, a piece by Leo Sowerby, and Cameron’s own “synthesized” version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which incorporates elements from just about every transcription that has ever been made of the piece.  He concluded with an encore, a transcription of John Philip Sousa’s march “Stars and Stripes Forever.”  It’s one of Cameron’s regular parlor trick/showpieces.  Here it is on youtube.  Note how he plays the piccolo obbligato the first time not with his fingers, but with his feet in the pedals: amazing.

Cameron wore a similar all-white outfit for his Minnesota recital as in the video. Organists (being by nature very catty) always have some sort of comment.  As the audience was filing out of the church sanctuary after the program, I heard a gentleman comment, “That nurse sure can play the organ.”   Later in the week I encountered Cameron on the street in a black tank top and chartreuse green skin-tight jeans. He only had moderate eye makeup on.  Needless to say you will not be seeing Virtual Farm Boy in a similar outfit.  Always stylish basic black for VFB.