Dallas — When it was announced that Cameron Carpenter, organ’s bad boy, would play his Dallas concert at Moody Performance Hall, it raised a big question. While the fantastic Lay Family Organ was just a few steps away at the Meyerson Symphony Center, why were we going to a performance space without an organ? The answer is that Carpenter is touring with him own custom designed electronic version. More about that later.
If you were expecting the Carpenter with the Mohawk haircut and sequins galore, you would have been disappointed. He appeared with a shaved head and dressed in a relatively conservative black suit that appeared to be sporting painted deigns. There wasn’t a program but he talked in a highly esoteric manner at length about what he was playing and the philosophy and raison d'être of the organ and its place in the world.
One comment overheard at intermission. “I was expecting Liberace but got Immanuel Kant.
However, Mohawks or not, what we got was a mind-blowing concert played by one of the greatest organists alive performed on a spectacular organ.
He played a widely varied program, starting with Bach’s Chorale Prelude, In dulci jubilo, BWV 729. He followed this with the first movement of Vierne’s First Symphony and then some more Bach, his Prelude and Fugue in D major (BWV 532). These are all standard organ recital fodder but played exceptionally well. Note perfect, in fact.
He then launched into his own arrangement of the Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp major, Op. 30, by Alexander Scriabin, although the piece was barely recognizable. It was turned into something new with Carpenter’s ministrations. The mystical first movement conjured up visions and the frantic dance of the last movement created a frenzy of sound. He followed that with a piece by Messiaen that was unfamiliar and whose title remained unannounced.
The second half led off with his arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. In this selection, the instrument sounded like a theater organ, only missing the cymbals and drums.
Then, more Bach. His Prelude (“Fantasia”) and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542. The fugue is based on a Dutch folk song, “Ik ben gegroet van…” (“I am greeted by…”). It is thought that Bach improvised this fugue for an audition and that he liked the results so much that he later wrote it down.
This brings us to Carpenter’s own improvisation.
The organ is the only place in the classical musical constellations where improvisation is cultivated. It is a requirement to get a certification from the American Guild of Organists. A few pianists include improvisation in their programs and some composer/pianists do also, but it is only common among organists.
As you would expect, Carpenter’s improvisation was complex and allowed troth organ and organist a chance to show off a little. His encore, a rollicking and ruckus arrangement of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” brought the house down.
His playing is eccentric, to be sure. Many of the old guard finds his Bach to be distorted and over-registered. It seems to be all about how many different sounds he can make, even changing manuals note by note to change the sonic output. No, this is not your father’s, or grandfather’s or great-great grandfather’s Bach. However, the notes are all the same and the composer’s genius comes through no matter how gussied up Carpenter makes it. Certainly, it is no less offensive than the huge orchestrations of Bach’s music, such as Stokowski’s mammoth ultra-romantic orchestrations. Such arrangements are really reconsiderations of the master’s work and, as such, are completely valid.
Organists usually engender polite applause but Carpenter’s obvious mastery, the incredible instrument and erudite commentary swept the audience spontaneously to its feet.
Now, about the organ.
You can toss out any preconceptions you may have about electronic organs, mostly engendered by the sound of a Hammond organ. This innovative 21-century version is a magnificent instrument and sounds exactly like the best traditional organ in the world. In fact, it sounds like many of the world’s great instruments because Carpenter’s custom built behemoth sampled its various stops from his favorite organs from everywhere.
Electronic pipe organ sample sets are created by making a recording of every single pipe in a particular rank, say the diapason. From this, engineers create a rank on the electronic instrument and it sounds exactly like the original organ would sound. Some say that reducing such a complex sound hardens it, much like the complaints against digitized CD recording as oppose to vinyl. However, Carpenter’s instrument sounded exactly like a pipe organ, especially when it was not at full ear-splitting volume.
Carpenter’s masterpiece is Opus 8 by Marshall & Ogletree. It contains 200 speaking stops, and is a combination of a 4-manual classical church and concert organ with a 2-manual theatre-style organ added on. While it can be used with earphones, the sound is delivered through a 48-channel sound system and an array of vertical speakers that would not be out of place at a loud rock concert. One set even imitates the protruding trumpets (trompette en chamade). A time-lapse video of the elaborate set up process is here.
If you are further interested, here is a trailer of a special done on Carpenter and the touring organ.