He had me with the “Colonial Song” by Percy Grainger.
That, and his outfit, which looked like something out of Fleetwood Mac, circa 1978.
We speak, in reverent tones, of Cameron Carpenter.
The virtuoso organist performed a solo recital at Segerstrom Concert Hall Sunday afternoon. Tickets were free and the place still wasn’t full. A rep for the Segerstrom Center told me most of the tickets had actually been spoken for, but when tickets are free folks don’t have quite the same motivation to actually go to the concert as they would if they had forked out dough for the privilege. And Carpenter is not yet a household name, at least not here.
I wasn’t working (so this isn’t a review). But as no one else was on duty I thought I’d at least mention the event took place.
Carpenter (b. 1981) played for about an hour and 15 minutes. A giant screen sat on stage below him, and cameras homed in on him for close-ups throughout. It was astonishing just to watch him, let alone hear him. The hall’s reverberation chambers, by the way, were completely open, no doubt at Carpenter’s direction. It provided an acoustic without murkiness, perfect for what he was trying to accomplish.
According to my source (there was no program booklet), Carpenter played:
- “Colonial Song” by Percy Grainger
- A fantasy and fugue by C.P.E. Bach.
- His own improvisations on three folk tunes, which included “Red River Valley”
Carpenter himself called the last pieces “improvisations,” but I doubt they were worked out in the moment. Rather, they began life as improvisations, and by now have become fully formed pieces. That’s what it sounded like to me, at least.
As anyone knows who has seen or heard Carpenter, he’s incredible. I knew this already, but seeing him live for the first time, I was struck how graceful and fluid his playing in. There seem to be no difficulties, even in the most gnarled music, for him, which makes him a delight to listen to because he puts the listener at ease. I haven’t heard many organists who can do this.
Also, contrary to his reputation as a showman, Carpenter has impeccable taste. The registrations were clear, the playing lucid and unsentimental, and bombast was avoided at all times.
Quite a bit of virtuosity had been displayed by this point in the program (including playing two keyboards at once with one hand), but he saved the pieces de resistance for last. He announced that he had put a kind of prelude and fugue together himself, consisting of his own arrangements of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor (originally for violin) and — wait for it — the rondo finale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (in D major, basically). Most in attendance didn’t seem to know what they were in for, but Carpenter told them the two pieces together would last around 35 minutes.
What can I say? I can’t recall ever seeing quite such a display of virtuosity. What I witnessed just didn’t seem humanly possible. The Chaconne was beautifully done, though still in the realm of the doable. The Mahler, however, played from memory, with both his hands and both his feet working furiously — he changed stops on the fly, too — just didn’t seem conceivable.
The Mahler worked well as an organ piece too. At the time he wrote the Fifth, Mahler had recently begun studying Bach; the counterpoint soon came pouring out in his symphonies. To hear this finale played on the organ was to make vivid the connection between Bach’s and Mahler’s contrapuntal styles.
Again, no bombast. Carpenter actually found lightness in both the Bach and Mahler.
I was the guy bravoing uncontrollably at the end. I hope Carpenter heard me.
photos: Nick Koon, courtesy of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts