Sunday night, October 26, 2014, Muriel Kauffman Theatre in the four-year-old Kauffman Center, there was an organ concert. Wait, wait, wait; the organ is in Helzberg Hall. Tonight, on the stage of Kauffman Theatre, a five-manual, 42 pedals pedalboard (normal is 32) International Touring Organ with huge speakers (check the slideshow for how many) along with lots of colored gels (or projected colors) on the stark lighting, a fog machine, and a guy working the controls, who wears sequined shoes, and some of the time, a sequined hoodie over a wife-beater undershirt, were making musical and visual spectacle, with digital technology and electricity (thank you, Thomas Edison).
Playing this conglomeration was Julliard-educated, former child prodigy, Cameron Carpenter, perhaps the 21st Century answer for Liberace. But the audience, the preponderance of a decent crowd on a World Series night, was not at all skeptical, but completely enthralled. He began with Shostakovitch’s “Festival Prelude,” with a bit more varietey of sound types than might be common. But, as he explained in his narrative (he narrated a lot, as either a professor or an apologist) that one of the reasons he likes the organ is it’s ability to differentiate separate melodic voices, so that the audience can hear what each is doing, rather like a very clear urban map. Differentiate he did.
A Johann S. Bach prelude & fugue followed, but not a set that was put together by the composer. First was the chorale prelude, In Dir ist Freude, BWV 615, and after a slightly longer than normal break (to underline the fact that it was a prelude and a fugue rather than a prelude and fugue?) “Fugue in G minor,” BWV 578, probably. These sounded pretty much like an energetic, normal Bach, except for a honky-tonk sound in there, somewhere.
The Franck “Chorale Prelude in G Major,” received an extreme treatment that would raise eyebrows if used a church service offertory. Mr. Carpenter’s “International Touring Organ,” was built by Marshall & Ogletree to his design specifications. There are hundreds of his favorite sounds in his organ, sampled from famous organs, as well as assorted other sounds, but, infinitely more credible than the ones on Costco’s Yamaha keyboards that come out every Yuletide.
But, Cameron honestly seems to be on a quest, and he has enough paying customers to make it possible to continue. His technique is comparable with the best. He has memorized every piece he played. He does not present pizzazz instead of content, but bombastic content. In one of his Hamlet-like soliloquies, he mused about the power of the organist to greatly control the environment of the audience, and with that comes a responsibility. The organ, he said, expresses human struggle, but not within the world of human stamina; an organ tone can continue forever if the key is held down and the power continues. A human-generated sound is finite, whether a singing tone, a cello’s note, or an undampened piano note, it will decay, and finally end.
He played three familiar Chopin pieces; he noted that when he tries to play Chopin he always learns something: that he needs to practice more.
In the second half, he played Scriabin’s, 4th Sonata and Bach’s Trio Sonata in d minor, and “Take me out to the ballgame,” but did not provide the game’s score. The Scriabin included rather wild sounds, the Bach was a bit more theatrical than normal, but probably not objectionable to most purists, and totally appreciated by the Carpenter fans in the theatre.
How can you do that; it depends upon whether the question is about ability or ethics. Cameron proactively answered his detractors: music cannot be damaged, but it can be momentarily inconvenienced. He is a millinialist; he has studied and worked with (and memorized) more masterworks than many of his fellow performers, but he is not encumbered with a sense of propriety as an absolute. Black spots on a page are there to be interpreted, not to be worshiped.
Taking part in Cameron Carpenter’s journey for the evening was entertaining, thought-provoking, fun, and. perhaps, left more questions than answers. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Cameron Carpenter’s latest DVD, is available from his website, along with much paraphernalia.