When one thinks of an organ recital, the first thought that comes to mind is a church setting, listening to an organist with his back to the audience, playing music for the most part written by classical composers. Cameron Carpenter, whose Princeton roots go back to his student days at the American Boychoir School, is trying to change all that. Along with his prodigious technical ability at the piano as a child, his first concept of what an organ should be was not the church-based instrument, but the theater organ, originally used to add a musical backdrop to a silent film. Mr. Carpenter has long stated that one of the frustrations of being an organ recitalist was adjusting to a different instrument in each venue. A decade ago, Mr. Carpenter began to address this issue by designing a transportable organ which can be taken anywhere and which would allow the organ repertoire to move in more compelling directions. For the past year, Mr. Carpenter has been unveiling his imaginative musical instrument across the United States, and last Friday night was Princeton’s turn.
Cameron Carpenter’s Princeton recital last Friday night took place not in a venue such as the University Chapel, with its majestic Skinner organ, but at McCarter Theater, where his five-manual International Touring Organ filled the stage of Matthews Theater. This instrument represents a fusion of Mr. Carpenter’s performing career, incorporating sonorities from his favorite musical experiences, with a goal of “innovating the relationship between organ and organist.” Built by Marshall & Ogletree, the Touring Organ includes modular console, numerous speakers, supercomputer/amplifier unit and LED lights to provide uplighting.
Mr. Carpenter’s organ recitals are usually a combination of classical repertoire and improvisation, and Friday night’s performance was a highly entertaining amalgamation of music history, visual media, and Mr. Carpenter’s imagination. Beginning with back-to-back Bach and Shostakovich works, Mr. Carpenter demonstrated the more fluty registrations of the Touring Organ, aided by his own dexterity among the five keyboard manuals.
The Bach pieces were richer and louder than Bach likely heard in his own time, with abrupt shifts in registration that Bach could not have imagined. The Touring Organ has a great spectrum of dynamics, and Mr. Carpenter’s own fascination with being able to “teeter on the edge of audibility” was clear.
Mr. Carpenter has made a career of transcribing orchestral works for the organ, and his treatment of Isaac Albéniz’s piano suite Iberia toyed with soft dynamics and heavy use of the lower two keyboard manuals and pedals. Oliver Messiaen’s God Among Us, one of the more difficult pieces in the repertory, was played with devilish virtuosity, force, and conviction, with the dissonances all the more discordant when heard digitally.
Mr. Carpenter’s own work, Music for an Imaginary Film, showcased some of his more astounding technical capabilities, including playing scale passages with one thumb while the rest of his fingers are playing on the manual above. At one point, Mr. Carpenter’s arms and legs all seemed to be going in different directions, creating a myriad of sonorities in the process.
As a tribute to his inspiration from silent film, Mr. Carpenter spent a highly enjoyable 20 minutes or so accompanying the Buster Keaton 1920 comedic film One Week. Playing with a great deal of vibrato and tremolo suitable for the time of the film, Mr. Carpenter provided an improvised accompaniment that included such sounds as train whistles and drumbeats that one would never hear from an organ. Throughout the film, he maintained solid musical control over the action on screen, and one could easily just have listened to the accompaniment and be just as entertained as watching the film. Mr. Carpenter further demonstrated his improvisational skills with the encore to the performance — his own interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, recreating the orchestral sonorities in almost unrecognizable form through unique registrations.
Cameron Carpenter is one of a kind. His musical training, whether in his hometown in western Pennsylvania, at the American Boychoir School, North Carolina School for the Arts, or Juilliard, provided him with technical abilities to take his chosen instrument into new realms (not unlike what Liszt did with the 19th-century piano). Along the way, he also picked up an understanding of interacting with audiences, becoming a “cross-over” artist who will bring new appreciation for all the genres of music he touches.