Organ recitals are not known for drawing crowds of fans leaping to their feet after a number played by an unseen artist on an instrument often a mystery to all but those who play it, but Pennsylvania native Cameron Carpenter is no ordinary organist and his recital on Saturday night at the Princeton University Chapel was far from a staid series of 18th and 19th-century pieces. Organ audiences often have no idea what is going on back there with the keyboards and pedals, but Mr. Carpenter has addressed this problem by making his performances multi-media. For Saturday night’s performance, this included a “picture in a picture” large screen, with cameras trained on his hands and feet. The four keyboard manuals of the University Chapel’s 1928 Aeolian-Skinner organ took up most of the screen, with a smaller view of the pedals, and even the most novice audience member could marvel at Mr. Carpenter’s technical agility and feathery touch on the keys. Many times during the performance, audience members could be seen shaking their heads in amazement at what would have been much less appreciated without the screens. Mr. Carpenter’s concert included only eight pieces (one of which was twenty-five minutes long), but the program included variety between classical and popular music and repertoire which showed Mr. Carpenter’s growth in confidence as an artist since he last played in the chapel.
Mr. Carpenter’s technical strengths include the incredible power of his hands, with the ability to stretch an interval of a 6th between two fingers; and the speed of his feet, requiring great balance on the bench. The success of his career as an organist is also due to his imagination, shown in the first few pieces he played. Beginning with his own arrangements of popular tunes, it was not until the fourth piece that Mr. Carpenter played a complete piece as it was actually written. His impressionistic fantasias on a theme from The Summer of ’42 and “Hey Jude” capitalized on the dynamic capabilities and stop combinations of the chapel’s organ, with his uncanny ability to extend his hands among manuals. His arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Suite #1 for Unaccompanied Cello (with his own interpolated passages) was played largely on the pedals, and his interpretations of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor found great drama in the work and quick tempi for the fugue.
Mr. Carpenter’s evolution as a performer was seen in his choice of works by Richard Wagner, Charles Ives, and in particular Franz Liszt. Liszt would have liked Cameron Carpenter. A musical renegade himself, Liszt took the polite early 18th-century piano and turned it into a monster virtuoso instrument through performance technique many at the time thought must have come from demonic possession. With similar spell-binding technique (although rooted in his own self-discipline and talent), Mr. Carpenter is presenting the organ as a concert instrument capable of much more than what churches and funeral parlors can provide. Through his registration choices, Mr. Carpenter found humor in the excerpt from Ives’ Piano Sonata Number 2, and his quick and light touch on the Choir Manual depicted the “murmuring forest” of Wagner’s Siegfried excerpt.
Mr. Carpenter saved the most powerful and complex piece for last: Liszt’s Fantasie und Fuge über den Choral “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophéte. Liszt originally composed this massive work for organ, but Mr. Carpenter no doubt took the piece to new heights, emphasizing the importance of opera in 19th-century keyboard music and taking full advantage of the organ’s 137 ranks and more than 7,000 pipes. Mr. Carpenter’s performance held the audience through the entire twenty-five minutes, but this was not a piece he necessarily would have done several years ago when he first played recitals at the University Chapel and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. Including a work such as this on the program showed that Mr. Carpenter’s reputation as a brilliant and original performer is secure, and audiences are hungry to hear not only complex organ works not often heard but what Mr. Carpenter will do next.