Dallas — Cameron Carpenter’s appearance on Saturday at the Meyerson Symphony Center was a real event in a number of ways. First and foremost, he is an organist playing a recital—something that rarely happens. Secondly, his appearance is the first of a newly instituted and long anticipated recital series featuring the shamefully ignored Lay Family Organ. Lastly, Carpenter is wildly unconventional and controversial: in his playing, in his sparkly dress and in his flamboyant personality. (See video above.)
That last adjective comes from the following quote by Paul Jacobs, Carpenter’s professor at Juilliard, in a 2009 piece by Vivien Schweitzer for the New York Times. While acknowledging that Carpenter is exceptionally talented and a great virtuoso, he goes on to add a tut-tut.
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Jacobs added, “there are some organists who dismiss him. He is flamboyant to the extreme, and naturally, that turns some people off. However, it entices others to learn more about the instrument.”
There have been some flamboyant organists before—Virgil Fox immediately comes to mind—so spangled shoes, sequined shirts and showoff flights on the pedal board are not new. Coming out as queer (his word) and what he calls his “radically inclusive” sexuality is no big deal these days, but it is a huge no-no in the world of organists, rumored to be filled to the brim with the closeted. Here is what he told Schweitzer:
“Sometimes people in church jobs are working under the radar,” he added. “If you think you’re going to lose your job, you have a reason to stay in the closet.”
But all this PR would be worthless if Carpenter was all glitter. He is, perhaps, one of the greatest organists alive on a technical level. It is musically where he runs more afoul of the establishment than with his gossip-rag lifestyle. He has no interest in playing the organ so it sounds like one. Admittedly, the fact that all organ music sounds similar to most listeners, even though it isn’t, is a tribute to the overuse of standard registrations. Depending on which of the many stops are activated, an organ can sound wildly different although most organists stick to what the composer indicated.
Carpenter opened with an all-Bach first half, but the kaleidoscope of sounds he demanded from the Lay Family Organ were mind-blowing. It sounded relatively standard one moment but morphed into to everything from a tin whistle to emitting low-pitched belches. The changes were constant, even within a phrase, and for unrevealed reasons. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in A major (BWV 536) and A minor (BWV 543) and three of his Trio Sonatas (Nos. 1, 3 and 6) could still be heard underneath the sonic smorgasbord, but it was like a distorted reflection in a fun house mirror.
His interpretations are as bizarre as the sounds. Tempi are a fluid thing in Carpenter’s hands. Put it all together and it is too much for many people, but there’s something about it that excites as well.
Personally, I think that Bach can withstand any treatment. Stokowski did something similar to Carpenter’s take with his overblown full orchestra arrangement of the Prelude and Fugue in D Minor. (You may remember that from Disney’s Fantasia.)
Bach has survived being Switched On Bach, Techno Bach, doot-dooted by the Swingle Singers and even rocked by the Dave Matthews Band—among countless other such versions. So, why not go wild with the sounds that can be made on an extravagant version of Bach’s own instrument, the organ?
Why not, indeed. The problem is that such novel playing wears out its welcome. One of the selections played with something akin to standard registration would have cleansed our ears and established a baseline to better appreciate his fantastical sounds.
The second half was a long and complicated three-movement symphony that was improvised on the spot. As impressive as that sounds, and it certainly is, organists improvise on a regular basis. The American Guild of Organists requires an improvisation in its certification program.
Carpenter’s musical language is basically tonal but with greatly expanded chord structures that come from jazz. Here, his unusual registrations were unobjectionable and, in fact, required to get his message across. Since it was improvised, he couldn’t preset any of his frequent stop changes. As a result, he was as busy pulling stops as he was playing notes.
His symphony lasted too long, was overly virtuosic and reached too many shattering climaxes, but it held my attention. The musical language was not all that adventurous although it would never be mistaken it for an older piece. His use of the organ was audacious. Many times, I wished that I had brought binoculars so I could see what combinations he used to get some of the sounds.
In the end, the Carpenter Miracle is about rescuing the organ from the dustbin of musical history. Organ recitals are poorly attended, sometimes just by a handful. There are many of them locally but no one even knows about them. Organs are mostly found in churches and they are replacing the expensive-to-maintain pipe organ with praise bands to fill the pews. The new head of the organ department at Southern Methodist University only attracted a few stalwarts for his debut recital.
Carpenter has a rapturous, loyal and growing following. Although the Meyerson was not filled, there were a respectable number of cheering people there. All his flash and show would be slightly embarrassing except for the fact that he is a magnificent organist and he makes a case for his interpretations.
Carpenter beguiles in away that would create curiosity about the instrument.
That is most definitely a good thing.