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.
Continue reading Cameron Carpenter plays …
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 is. 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
Fantastic Tim. I wish I’d been here.
Most importantly, Mr. Carpenter concluded his recital by playing his transcription of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in d minor as a prelude to his magisterial adaptation of the Rondo Finale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, as the closest thing to a fugue Mahler ever wrote (as Mr. Carpenter said from the organ). Carpenter’s version is a work of genius and a remarkably coherent creation that permits Mahler’s ideas to come through at the same time the 120 instruments of the orchestra are reduced to four manual keyboards, two hands, and two feet (the hundreds of different registration changes during the course of the performance facilitated by the MIDI capacity of Segerstrom’s Fisk organ). Despite the range of the William J. Gillespie Concert Organ at Segerstrom, I for one am looking forward to Mr. Carpenter’s re-creation of the work on a virtual organ that can permit an even greater range of expressivity and nuance and can introduce the work in venues that don’t have as fine an instrument as Segerstrom.
Mr. Barnes, you may not have read my entire post … just saying.
And you say this isn’t a review? I am diving for the Davies schedule right now because I think he is doing a program in SF soon, because, WOW.
He did tell us he was headed to Northern California somewhere this week. Do go if you can, Lisa. I bet he’ll play the Mahler.
Oh, yikes – he’s playing at Davies at 8 p.m. on October 30.
I am seeing Xerxes at the Opera at 2 p.m. – then going home to write my review. Unless I can scribble it by hand in a coffee shop between 5:30 and 8, there’s just no way.
Damn. I see he’s in San Luis Obispo tomorrow night, the 4th. That’s what he must have mentioned when he talked to us.
He played that Bach-Mahler concoction of his at the Walt Disney Concert Hall too when he performed there a couple of years ago. Although he is undeniably a tremendous virtuoso on the organ, i thought that his taste in his transcribing choices of voicings and registers was rather questionable. It was all a little bit too wild and self-serving for my liking. If i remember correctly, he did say then that it was his first performance of the piece. So, he might have tweaked it some since then. And if he improved it – and his other arrangements – in those areas that i mentioned above, then i am unquestionably delighted, because as an organist he is definitely a peerless monster.
Actually, Carpenter played the Bach/Busoni-Mahler in the premiere version at his May 2011 Disney Hall concert. His last time performing in Disney Hall was in 2005 in the Poulenc concerto.
Your second sentence contradicts your first one, but anyway – i was definitely talking of his solo recital there last spring.
I wasn’t at his Disney Hall recital … but I’d say he tweaked his registrations of the Bach and Mahler. The Chaconne was pretty colorful, I guess, but I didn’t think unduly so. And the Mahler seemed pretty straightforward in its registrations. I seem to recall the LA Times critic objecting a bit to the Mahler in Disney too. My feeling is that Carpenter has worked to better his registrations.
“Peerless monster” seems about right, MarK.
Wow! Wish I had been there!