Concert Review: The Innovative Organist Cameron Carpenter — Shaping Music in Surprising Ways
Kudos to the Celebrity Series for bringing this interesting and innovative young musician to Boston and kudos to Cameron Carpenter for such a fascinating few hours.
By Roberta Silman
Last Thursday those of us who were lucky enough to be in Sanders Theatre for Cameron Carpenter’s concert had a wonderful, exhilarating evening, exactly what Boston needed after this long arduous winter. For Carpenter, though only 34, is an unforgettable and unique performer. Hailing from North Carolina where he confessed he had been mesmerized as a child by a poster of a theater organist, he has been classically trained, has an undergraduate degree and MA from Julliard, and is a supremely talented organist. As I sat there, surrounded by many professional organists, I was very grateful to be accompanied by my husband, Robert Silman, who is an amateur organist and knows a lot about the instrument and how it has evolved over time. That was crucial for an understanding of all that Carpenter has done and is doing to re-shape one’s idea of what an organ concert can be.
Because of Bob’s interest in the organ we have attended lots of organ programs, mostly in churches. Our favorite venue is St. Sulpice in Paris where the superb Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) played the great French organ repertoire — Vidor, Franck, Vierne, Dutilleux and others — and created his own works. Typically, a church organist like Dupré stays in one church for many years: he or she goes to the organ loft every Sunday, plays throughout the service, and then performs an improvisation based on a hymn in that week’s mass. Those “improvisations” revealed whether they were talented composers in their own right. At the end of the service the congregation would get, at most, a bow from the organist, and go home with the sense of peace and equanimity that only the organ can give when played well in an impressive space, or even in a modest American church with decent acoustics. That was the model that prevailed all over the world through the 19th and 20th century.
But for Cameron Carpenter, who is a performer above all, that was not nearly enough. So what he has done is to find a way to have “his own” organ that he can take with him when he concertizes. He calls it The International Touring Organ and he launched it in 2014. The instrument is a digital organ that he designed and had built by the firm of Marshall & Ogletree, who are located in Needham, MA. Both Douglas Marshall and David Ogletree are organists, and this is the eighth digital organ they have constructed (their Opus 1 was built in 2003 to replace the pipe organ at Trinity Church in Manhattan, which had been damaged by debris on September 11, 2001). The beauty of Carpenter’s organ is that it not only has a range of sounds as grand as that of a major pipe organ, but its six modular parts can also be assembled in less than three hours. It travels in a single large truck in specially built cases. Backing it up is a sound support and amplification system which is housed in Berlin for his European tours and Needham for his North American tours. That system can also travel in specially built cases with the organ when necessary.
When we entered Sanders Hall we saw the console, which is quite large but very neatly designed, 24 speakers in groups of four, 18 speakers in a line, a huge screen, and on the other side of the stage, the black boxes which housed the support and amplification system. But nothing could prepare us for the excitement of seeing an image of Carpenter — who sits with his back to the audience — projected in profile on the big screen so we could see his amazing skill with both hands and feet (shod in black boots with sparkles on the high heels) as he played.
And when we opened the program we had an inkling of how different this concert was about to be. Instead of seeing listed selections and notes about each, there was simply the line “Selections will be announced from stage.” “I wonder if that has to do with the acoustics, maybe he waits until he plays the organ in the room to decide what the program will be,” my husband murmured, a little put off. But then, with no introduction, Carpenter began playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, filling the hall in a remarkable and inspiring way. After that big piece, he rose and took the microphone and began to talk. It was soon clear that the lack of program had nothing to do with the acoustics, but rather with his need to connect to his audience.
A well-built man, he sports a Mohawk these days, and wore all black, tight-fitting pants, a tux-like coat and shirt and tie and those pointy-toed boots with their charming twinkly sparkles at the back. Yet his style of speaking is not at all flamboyant, more informal and down-to-earth. What was so touching about Carpenter is how much he loves his instrument, how proud he is of what he and it can do together, and how much he wants to make it do. He talked then and later about his gratitude to Marshall and Ogletree, his need for a “companion” instrument that is mobile, the ability of this digital organ to do even more than the old pipe organs in its range of pitch and volume and also in its responsiveness. He pointed out that unlike most instruments, the organ does not require physical stamina to produce a large sound (as a piano or violin or brass instrument does) — a mere flick of a switch or touch of a finger can produce amazing volume for an equally amazing length of time.
For me, the first half of the program was outstanding. After the compelling Bach, he played his arrangements of both Shostakovitch’s Festival Overture and Albeniz’s Evocación, from Suite Iberia, as well as Bach’s Trio Sonata in Eb, and Dupré’s Variations on Noel. The Shostakovitch and Albeniz were absolutely beautiful, filled with color and emotion. And the Bach was also gorgeous, although not as grand as the first Bach selection. The Dupré was not as successful, somewhat dark, as Carpenter had promised in his introduction, warning that it was more “Brothers Grimm” than sweetness and light. However, Carpenter is a great admirer of Dupré and clearly feels an affinity towards him because Dupré was first and foremost a performer, and secondarily a composer.
After the intermission Carpenter came out more informally dressed in a printed shirt and tight jeans instead of the black outfit and played the Bach’s Toccata in F Major, his own Music for an Imaginary Film, Gershwin songs, and Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4. The Bach was fine, but somehow the Gershwin songs didn’t take off, and although I adore Scriabin, I wasn’t as transported by Carpenter’s arrangement as I had hoped. However, his own piece deserves mention, for composing is also an important part of Carpenter’s life and his own works form a large portion of his repertoire. His Sony debut album If You Could Read My Mind shot to Number 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart when it was released in this country. He is the first solo organist ever nominated for a Grammy Award for a solo album. He has also won the Leonard Bernstein Award for composition. While I wasn’t sure I loved Music for an Imaginary Film, I admired its range and his ambition, and I look forward to hearing some of his past work and future pieces. Carpenter’s energy is extraordinary, and his determination to change the way we think of organ music truly revolutionary. Indeed, 2008’s Revolutionary is what he called his first solo album, which won a Grammy.
It isn’t often that you leave a concert certain that your angle of vision on a particular kind of music has changed. But that is what Bob and I felt when we left Sanders Theatre last Thursday. Kudos to the Celebrity Series for bringing this interesting and innovative young musician to Boston and kudos to him for such a fascinating few hours. For those interested in him and the technology that went into the making of his digital organ, there is more information online. And for those who are at all interested in how the younger generation is making music in new and surprising ways, I hope that if Carpenter is doing a program within a hundred miles of where you live, you will get to hear and see him. You will not be disappointed.
Roberta Silman is the author of a story collection, Blood Relations, now available as an ebook, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.