A recital by Cameron Carpenter is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those in want of a relaxing evening out. Last Wednesday’s recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre introduced us to a new instrument, the International Touring Organ. It’s a beauty, designed and built for Cameron Carpenter by Massachusetts organ builders Marshall & Ogletree. They have sampled Carpenter’s favourite instruments from around the world – from traditional pipe organs to Wurlitzers.
Throughout the evening Carpenter’s ardent connection to the ITO was obvious, speaking of the fantasy all organists have of designing one’s own organ, then adding with glee, that he has actually managed to do it. A precocious talent, the world’s most recognizable organist is out to reinvent the instrument. And now he has his own portable instrument (with help of a small truck), a digital behemoth with which he can travel. The standing ovation given by Melbourne’s crowd augurs well for the future of the ITO and its creator.
The recital was as much about the instrument as it was the music. The Overture from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opened the program, a flurry of hands and feet across five keyboards plus another including the foot pedals. More than a few minutes of acclimatising to the extremes of the sound world were not helped by a general lack of clarity and a particularly annoying distortion of brass voices. The visual aspect of the Carpenter concert experience is pivotal. A giant projecting screen, focused from above on the performer enabled a bird’s eye view, highlighting Carpenter’s shifts of attention, with large and small flourishes providing further entertainment.
Carpenter replaced the programmed Liszt Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses III with Bach’s French Suite No.5 in G major, a touching paean for the citizens of Paris. Some shook their heads at the blasphemy of digitized Bach, and this listener found the incessancy of the digital sound oftentimes difficult to move past. Let’s not forget that Carpenter considers his art within an evolving musical tradition, and playing Bach on a digital instrument is no more sacrilegious than say, Glenn Gould using pedal on a modern Steinway Concert D – neither of which were imagined by Bach himself.
Carpenter has technique in spades, a phenomenal memory, effortless in his elucidation of Bach’s contrapuntal genius. This was un-simple Bach (I overheard a fellow listener say “Bach on speed”); the incessant changing of registers and voice colour gave one the impression that Carpenter was drunk with choice. Finally in the Sarabande came a needed moment of calm, and some insightful breathing space after some fairly intense and difficult harmonic wrangling. The Gigue was delightful, with Carpenter Scottish-dancing at the console as his feet carried on a duo with his right hand.
Dupre’s Variations sur un Noel, Op.20 worked magic as nigh on the most convincing work of the evening. Carpenter’s immense technical command and architectural understanding illuminated the melodic thread convincingly. Next to the Bach, the voicing and register choices just worked. A rare glitch with the wrong stops early on came as a surprise (the man is a mortal after all!). Carpenter was also most engaging in his own composition, Music for an Imaginary Film tapping in to his filmic conception of music. The impression was one of a crazed puppeteer, allowing snatches of melody, reminiscences, and original sounds.
Gershwin’s The Man I Love enjoyed a wonderful Carpenter arrangement in a tribute to the popular theatre organs of the United States between about 1910 – 1929. Here the ITO was at its most convincing, some vein-popping moments from the synthetic cymbals were a highlight. Again, it was a pyrotechnic display of keyboard prowess and creative force. Next we heard a thought-provoking Scriabin Sonata in F sharp major, adventurous programming which had the audience in its grip, sparking two encores. I left the concert with an overwhelming need for silence. Perturbed at times, but also more a little fascinated.