Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lo, He Comes With Shoes Sequined

Cameron Live!
Cameron Carpenter at the Aeolian-Skinner of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City
Telarc International

Bach: Preludes and Fugues BWV 532, 541, 543, 544, 548; Toccata in F# (transcribed from F) BWV 540; Carpenter: Serenade and Fugue on BACH.


My first exposure to organist Cameron Carpenter came by way of a comment left on this site a couple years ago. In response to my mention of young American organist Chelsea Chen, the commenter suggested I learn about Carpenter who "blows Chelsea Chen out of the water."

Chalk it up to my contrarian nature, perhaps, but this rather worked as an anti-endorsement to me. Quite apart from my rejection of music as a competitive (even gladiatorial!) endeavor, Ms. Chen seems to possess a deep musicality and a technical competence that more than qualify her for entry into the ranks of accomplished musicians; one needn't, I feel, occupy some ultimate place to be worthy of attention and consideration.

But after recently making a more comprehensive introduction to Mr. Carpenter, I begin to see why people might enthuse about him (while in no way ceding ground vis-a-vis my appreciation of Ms. Chen). After my recent and delightful discovery of the fascinating Aeolian-Skinner instrument in New York City's Church of St. Mary the Virgin, I was even more thrilled to learn there had been a recent recording of the instrument.

Enter Cameron Carpenter.

Mr. Carpenter's website and the information available on the web (including some reviews of his playing) do indeed paint him as a major artist, a phenom even. A graduate of the Julliard School, Mr. Carpenter studied with Gerre Hancock, John Weaver and Paul Jacobs and is brilliantly talented quite beyond question.

He is also controversial, to a degree inherently and to a degree by design. His musical vision is unique and his enthusiasm and élan are irrepressible, but he's bringing sequined costumes to places where sequins don't get much play. And this is not to everyone's liking: just take a look at the comments about his playing on iTunes. People seem to love him or hate him; there's little in-between.

For this recording--Mr. Carpenter's second with the major label Telarc--he is at the aforementioned Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin just off Times Square. I've said plenty about that instrument here, so let's just concentrate on Mr. Carpenter. His program is Bach--five of the Great Preludes and Fugues, the Toccata in F Major BWV 540 (transcribed here to F#)--and three pieces by Mr. Carpenter himself (one an improvised cadenza to BWV 541).

Mr. Carpenter's playing reminds me very much of the late (and incomparable) Vladimir Horowitz. Any given piece Horowitz performed was likely to be as much Horowitz as the piece's composer, either by some degree of creative license or, more typically, by the simple force of Horowitz's mind, by the singularity of the artist's interpretation (Glenn Gould strikes me in the same way). Carpenter is like this. His Bach is quite a distance from what has come to be accepted as "authentic performance," and yet he is never disrespectful and never less than fully, coherently musical. On the contrary, his musical vision seems almost more than the vessel of an existing composition can contain. Like the Well-Tempered Clavier played on a modern Steinway, Carpenter tailors his interpretations to take advantage of the full resources of a modern pipe organ--I have never seen anyone so lavishly fluent in the dense mechanical controls of a large organ console. (And he's not afraid to play on his instrument his favorite music of any genre or background--much, I'm reminded, like the popular piano recitals of a century ago.)

But it must be said that the organ has more than its share of traditionalists, both in performers and in enthusiasts, and Mr. Carpenter's iconoclastic approach is simply not going to be everyone's cup of tea (though to be very worked up over it seems silly to me). He never seems shocking for its own sake, but neither does he seem willing to tread lightly when his heart tells him something else. He is an irrepressible showman, loving any publicity and revealing a lavish (some might say lurid) presence. It's talent and exuberance that verges on precocity--and at times perhaps spilling over into excess. His transcription of Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude (from which his Grammy-nominated first Telarc album takes its name) has his feet doing things that I daresay few organists could do, and on this album his transcription of Bach's F Major Toccata up half a step to F# seems a bit show-offy, like he had a wager with friends and was doing the deed extemporaneously.

But I cannot sustain these misgivings; Cameron Carpenter is a lavish, larger-than-life musical presence in a world that will not suffer for the injection of some new blood, frankly. I love that Mr. Carpenter for a few years held down a regular church post despite being "not religious," and that he is a strong advocate of the virtual pipe organ--an all-electronic version of the instrument. Neither of these things is likely to sit at all well with the traditionalist, but the traditional pipe organ, traditionally-played, seems in fairly secure hands at the moment. Music is a big house and there is plenty of room for those whose wide-ranging enthusiasms cannot be contained.

And from his skin-tight, Siegfried-and-Roy costumes and hand-sequined shoes, one might conclude that if we don't make space for Mr. Carpenter he could very easily construct his own space without our invitation. For my part, much as I love the stuffy and traditional in this field, I welcome him with open arms.

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