However, I did go to Cameron Carpenter’s sold-out recital at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Friday evening. It was a lot of things – but boring certainly wasn’t one of them.
This 34-year-old American organist makes quite a fashion-statement, from his Mohawk haircut down to the sequins on his heels. He’s certainly no heard-but-not-seen church organist. On the contrary, in many ways, he’s cut from the same cloth as the showman-organists of yesteryear, such as Virgil Fox.
Cameron’s appearance is daring, and his instrument is ground-breaking – yet in his repertoire choices, he played it pretty safe. There were selections by Bach, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Vierne, Gershwin and a few others.
He wasted no time in showing what he and his organ could do. Opening with a glorious transcription of the Meistersinger Overture (complete with cymbals and triangle), he proved that he is a virtuoso, playing a virtuoso instrument. Seated with his back to the audience, he presents a lively spectacle of flailing arms and legs. And, to further his visual impact, Carpenter had a giant screen suspended above the stage, with his performance projected on it.
At times, however, Carpenter revealed himself to be willfully eccentric. One might expect bright, gaudy timbres in a novelty piece like Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster, with its imitation Big Ben’s chimes. But in a transcription of Schubert’s Erlkönig, in a passage where the evil Elf King appears, Carpenter invoked the weirdest sound I’ve ever heard from an organ – a cross between a bassoon and a bullfrog.
Often, his playing ranged from loud to louder to loudest. (I began to suspect that his array of on-stage speakers all have volume-dials that go past “ten” to “eleven,” like Spinal Tap’s.) His take on the Third Movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was founded on brute force, with thick, clotted textures and strident voicings.
Happily, he treated Bach with much more probity. In the Contrapunctus IX from the Art of Fugue, he found some breathy stops that charmingly suggested the Swingle Singers. In the Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, his soft and subtle dynamic shadings were both surprising and impressive. This was, I think, the best music-making of the evening.
When not playing the organ, Carpenter likes to talk. He’s a smart guy, and his on-stage commentary reminded me of the sort of thing that Glenn Gould used to do on the CBC: a mixture of musical scholarship and quirky personal indulgence. In his rambling observations, he mentioned the invention of the telephone exchange, a numerical sequence called the Fibonacci series – and he argued that the organ is an inherently “gay” musical instrument.
Carpenter reminded me of Gould in a few other ways, as well. He adores Bach. (“Bach is like the sun,” he said. “His music is like photosynthesis.”) Yet he has nothing but contempt for the concept of authenticity in performance, preferring to use a score as a springboard for his own ideas. He loves new technology, and places great faith in its powers. He has a favourite instrument that meets his very specific needs. And did I mention that he is a tad eccentric?
I’d be surprised, though, if he ever takes a page out of Gould’s playbook by abandoning the concert hall for the recording studio. Gould came to despise live performances, but Carpenter looked to be having a whole lot of fun up on stage.
© Colin Eatock 2016