Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 14
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
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Former Princeton Area Student Dazzles In Innovative and Original Organ Recital

Nancy Plum

When pianist Vladimir Horowitz was in his heyday, audiences marveled at the flexibility of his hands and the incredible range of keys he could reach. Such hand strength and dexterity has rarely been seen in decades since, but Mr. Horowitz’s skills seem to have been reincarnated in the abilities of Cameron Carpenter, a young organist who has been creating a sensation over the past years with his combination of music, technology, and an instrument revered in the church for centuries. A native of Pennsylvania with strong Princeton ties (he attended The American Boychoir School), Mr. Carpenter brought his unique way of recreating the organ as a solo concert instrument to the Princeton University Chapel on Friday night as part of McCarter Theatre’s music series. An impressively large crowd in the Chapel was treated to a dazzling show of technique and showmanship which no doubt left people viewing the instrument in a whole new light.

The Princeton University organ is one of the best — an Aeolian-Skinner originally installed in 1928 and refurbished in 1991 to include almost 8,000 pipes. As Mr. Carpenter pointed out in his onstage commentary, the organ is not an instrument which one can carry from town to town on a concert tour, and no two instruments in different venues are exactly alike, making it all the more challenging for someone playing traditional repertoire, much less carving a new performing path. Playing a concert tour of organ recitals (Friday night was the kick-off of Mr. Carpenter’s latest tour) requires the performer to adjust the program to the “site-specific” instrument, and in the case of the Chapel organ, there were many possibilities of choices.

The way to any organ audience’s collective heart is through Bach, and Mr. Carpenter programmed Bach’s spirited Prelude and Fugue in G Major early in the concert, demonstrating all the precise and clean technique Bach likely envisioned when he composed the work. What Bach would not have dreamed of was the impressionistic registration and improvisatory style Mr. Carpenter employed in the piece. With a large video screen showing two images simultaneously, the audience was able to see Mr. Carpenter’s hands and feet move across the four manuals and pedals of the organ. Mr. Carpenter’s remarkable dexterity was shown in his ability to play two manuals with one hand — not just single notes, but divergent scales — requiring tremendous hand strength. In this work as throughout the concert, Mr. Carpenter’s feet were light on the pedals, in organ shoes which he designed himself for precision and ease of movement.

In Cesar Franck’s Chorale #1 in E Major, Mr. Carpenter took the composer’s specific performing instructions to another level by building the richness of the registration and making great use of the swell pedals and the French trumpet stops which played from the pipes at the back of the Chapel. The video screens enabled the audience to see the incredible quickness of Mr. Carpenter’s hands and feet, as well as the tremendous balance it takes to move all hands and feet at the same time.

Mr. Carpenter’s recital included the masters of organ repertoire, however, a mainstay of his career has been exploring the interplay between classical and popular music and developing his innate improvisatory skills. To this end, he played original arrangements of popular songs by Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, and Katie Perry. In Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” fragments of the tune appeared from time to time amidst imaginative registration effects. Katie Perry’s “Firework” required the most virtuosity, capitalizing on the effervescent character of the song.

Mr. Carpenter challenged the audience to recognize the tunes of his last three improvisations, all tributes to his years at the Boychoir School. In the case of the first two, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and “Ching a Ring Chaw” (part of the Boychoir’s repertory when Mr. Carpenter was there), he followed the traditional rules of improvisation by stating the tune and then taking off into new territory. However, in the case of “This Christmastide” (which still closes Boychoir holiday concerts), the improvisation opened with his own “native scale,” leaving the source tune to the very end and keeping the audience wondering what it would be.

The organ has traditionally been heard in church, skating rinks, and as background to silent movies. Mr. Carpenter has made a personal mission of bringing out the dramatic qualities of the instrument and showing what the organ can do, while breaking down the barriers between performer and audience. Through his innovative and highly entertaining concerts, Mr. Carpenter has joined such performers as hammered dulcimer player Malcolm Dalglish (who also attended the Boychoir School) and several recently emerging accordion virtuosi in taking an instrument deeply rooted in one genre and successfully presenting it in another. Mr. Carpenter is taking his mission further than most performers by designing his own 21st-century digital organ. When commenting on his unique concert attire (also self-designed and in some cases self-sewn), Mr. Carpenter noted that “I’m not in this not to be noticed,” but when talking about his craft, he modestly states that “I am just trying to play music.” And play music he does.

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