United States Bach, Mozart, Reger: Cameron Carpenter (organ), Virginia Repertory Theater, Mesa Performing Arts Center, Mesa, Arizona 16.4.14 (RP)
Cameron Carpenter’s recital on a three-manual Rodgers electronic organ in a perfectly fine, but nondescript concert hall raises the question: why do people pay for what they can get for free? “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from the musical Gypsy springs to mind.
Opportunities abound to hear fine organists playing magnificent instruments in churches around the world. Those same musicians play challenging recitals, often with no admission fee or a free-will offering at most, and yet the churches are basically empty. Carpenter offers a solid but hardly exciting program, wears some flashy clothes, sports a funky haircut, challenges the status quo by championing electronic instruments, takes the experience out of a church—and people pay. More power to him.
A child prodigy from a small town in Western Pennsylvania, he attended Juilliard and studied with some of the finest organists and teachers. There is no disputing his musical pedigree, musicianship or his superb technique.
On this occasion, Carpenter displayed his serious side, although I bet that the audience would have loved a bit of the Beatles. This recital followed a typical format ending with a series of improvisations. There was no printed program. He announced selections from the stage, dryly observing that if you have a short attention span as he claims to have, there is no way you can take it all in. Though I struggled I could not hear him, let alone write down the pieces as he announced them.
His message was short and clear, however. He was taking the audience on a brief musical journey starting with the formulaic, almost mathematical world of the German Baroque, moving to the equally structured but far different world of Classicism, and finally ending in the full flowering of German Romanticism. Three improvisations followed. He offered one encore, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
The audience in Mesa, Arizona did not have the opportunity to experience Carpenter’s International Touring Organ, made by Marshall & Ogeltree. New York City audiences recently did and The New York Times review said that it sounded “quite terrific.” The Rogers did not. Given the opportunity, he favored fast tempi. If you cannot overwhelm an audience aurally, technique is a good alternative.
There was a large screen over the organ console on which you could see Cameron’s long, elegant fingers fly over the keyboard. It was mesmerizing, but also distracting. Watching his fingers on the screen brought to mind figure skaters gliding over the ice, executing intricate patterns and spectacular leaps. But if I wanted to concentrate on the music and his playing, I had to look away from the screen. That said, watching his transcription of a Bach cello concerto on the pedals, I found the rhinestone heels on his black organ shoes were not nearly so distracting.
This concert only whetted the appetite for more. I want to hear Carpenter’s skills on a magnificent instrument, no matter what type. But for anyone who has experienced any of the world’s great organs, this was a “cup-half-empty” experience. The gimmick only goes so far.