Carpenter presents unconventional but enjoyable recital

By Christopher K. Conner

Organist Cameron Carpenter appeared at McCain Auditorium on Saturday. The draw for organ recitals not being vast to begin with, the unfortunate timing of the performance the evening before Easter contributed to a light turnout.

Personally, I had no prior knowledge of Carpenter. I knew he would perform on an organ, and I figured it had to be an electronic one.

While waiting for the performance I overheard a few bits about YouTube videos showcasing Carpenter’s talents. I also heard that the organ spotlighted on the McCain Auditorium stage was not the one that would be touring with him in Europe.

From the organist at the church that hosted my Boy Scout troop in the 1980s, I learned years ago that every organ is different. The pipe organ at the church was one of the larger ones in Kansas City. I tried to remember what her performance was like, but memory failed me.

The lights dimmed and Carpenter entered. His appearance was a bit unexpected, nothing like the picture in the program that made him look roughly like John Mayer.

Without an introduction, he bowed for the applauding audience and took his seat. The heels of his boots sparkled as he settled in.

From his appearance, I was expecting him to avoid Bach and Dupre and embrace something unexpected. Carpenter managed to surprise me by embracing Bach and again by performing Cello Suite No. 1, beginning with foot pedals alone.

After two pieces, Carpenter addressed the audience. He explained some of his feelings about being dubbed “Rock Star of Classical Electronic Organ” and described the perspective from which he approaches music.

He went on to introduce pieces in an unusual way, like a friend introducing an acquaintance in private, warning us of character flaws so the audience wouldn’t be surprised.

Carpenter also touched on some of the controversy that swirls around him. Given the flash of his appearance, and the energy of his interpretations of centuries old music, controversy is understandable. There is also a certain clatter to his style that was noticeable, reducing the feeling behind the pieces, but adding back in a power that some might not find appropriate for the instrument.

A camera captured a closeup of Carpenter as he played. If I watched it, I lost any connection to the music. Instead my thoughts were consumed by the rapidity and mechanical precision of his movements. 

At times the music was on the verge of painfully loud and harsh, but always came back around so that I found myself closing my eyes to listen without the distractions of Carpenter’s technique.

The performance ended with a three part improvisation. Carpenter explained beforehand his perspective on improvisation. He insisted that improvisation was a work that while unpracticed and never to be played again, derived its character from the moment and the space in which it was performed. It is a laying out of all the musician knows, exposed before the audience.

Back home after the concert I took in some of the YouTube videos and read some of the comments to get a taste of the controversy. While I understand some of the complaints, I don’t share much of their opinion.

While not the same flavor of performance you might get from more conventional organists, I enjoyed Cameron Carpenter’s performance just as well. A different beast, maybe, but one that is worth seeing.

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