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Carpenter, charisma and componentality

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
04/04/2016 -  
Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Overture
Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080, Fugue No. 9 – Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BVW 544 – Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Astor Piazzolla: Oblivion
Louis Vierne: 24 Pièces de fantaisie en quatre Suites, 3e Suite, Op. 54: VI. “Carillon de Westminster”
Scott Joplin: Rag
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphonie No. 6 “Pathétique”, Op. 74: “Marche”
Franz Schubert: Erlkönig, D. 328
George Gershwin: Medley

Cameron Carpenter (organ)

C. Carpenter (Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

He’s part Michael Jackson, part Liberace, part Virgil Fox – and all Cameron Carpenter. The stage was festooned with dozens of enormous white speakers, almost invoking George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, a garland of electronic gear surrounding the humongous five keyboard and one hundred and eighty-six stops console for Mr. Carpenter’s modular electronic organ which now tours with him. The instrument was custom made by Marshall & Ogletree of Needham, Massachusetts.

During the performance, Carpenter spoke about his instrument, and about the history of the pipe organ which he mentions predates Christianity and is arguably the foundation of all electronic and digital music. Noting that many regard the pipe organ as staid and predictable, he considers the instrument’s history, in addition to its arguably infinite potential for creating sound, makes it parallel to the direction of the still unfolding universe. While Carpenter categories himself as an atheist, he suggests his electronic organ’s limitless potential and ‘componentality’ may be a key for linking infinity to eternity and, accordingly, a psychological portal to “much more”.

Carpenter himself, however, manages not to be upstaged by such a monumental instrument, or even his own ideology. The 34-year old American might well be a protégé of Barnum & Bailey and Madonna, combined: he has discussed his sexuality (“radically inclusive”) with The New York Times; he wears rhinestone shoes and sports a Mohawk coiffure worthy of Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver; discarding his jacket after intermission, he struts on stage in the tightest charcoal T-shirt and pants his audience will see outside of a leather bar. (He’s definitely channeling sex-bomb rock stars, male and female, when it comes to stage charisma.)

But with so much hype the big question remains, is this young man a genuine, brilliant musician? And whatever we think of his ideas and his unprecedented musical instrument, the answer to this is “yes”. Juilliard trained and with an enormous range of performing experience already under his belt, Carpenter delivers music which can be overwhelming both for its intellectual virtuosity and for its showmanship – and I mean the latter in the best sense of this word.

He opened the evening with a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture which must have left more than a few people wondering what he could possibly do to top this. The answer came in the program’s second half when, after a briefly amusing Joplin Rag he launched into the third movement “Marche” from Tchaikovsky’s Symphonie Pathétique. This is arguably the most complex orchestration Tchaikovsky ever created (the Pathétique was the composer’s final work), and it’s frequently contrapuntal with voices and dialog all over the spectrum. It quickly became apparent that Carpenter’s arrangement (six keyboards, if you include pedals) was a virtuoso stunt on the level of Vladimir Horowitz’ celebrated arrangement of themes from Bizet’s Carmen (which this reviewer heard in person back in 1967). On a smaller yet still challenging scale, Carpenter’s encore, The Stars and Stripes Forever, again was Horowitz-worthy in terms of intellectual and esthetic imagination.

Carpenter’s work nonetheless isn’t all fun and stunts. Before closing the program with Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, he mentioned its parallels with Bach’s most celebrated choral works and commented on its depiction of the plight of men. He brought genuine darkness also to his arrangement of Schubert’s celebrated lied, Erlkönig. But Cameron Carpenter’s speciality at this time clearly is the realm of virtuoso stunts. He will shortly debut Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with The Pittsburgh Symphony, and will return to Ottawa to perform this during the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s 2016-17 with Carpenter’s friend Alexander Shelley conducting.

Cameron Carpenter’s website

Charles Pope Jr.



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