Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Offbeat Organ Virtuoso Brings the Noise Back to Schermerhorn

Posted By on Tue, May 17, 2011 at 6:05 AM

Cameron Carpenter
  • Cameron Carpenter
The witty, whimsical evangelist of the classical organ, Cameron Carpenter, was in Nashville Sunday night performing at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and it was a reminder of why we’re glad the flood didn’t permanently shut down the house — and how lucky we are to have the pipes to attract the virtuoso to town.

Pipes, of course, being the $2.5 million Martin Foundation Concert Organ. Carpenter’s concert was the first public performance on the organ since its restoration after severe flood damage.

And yet Carpenter — who is the first popularly acclaimed superstar of the classical organ in decades (maybe ever, if superstar means being Grammy-nominated, fabulously attired and active on Facebook) — resists the fetishization of individual instruments.

Though he proclaimed the Schoenstein pipe organ to be “very good,” he likened the instruments he encounters while touring to “one-night stands” when one would rather have “a 25-year marriage.”

He then slipped in a mention of one of his pet causes, the development of a digital touring organ, something that makes purists of analog organ music puff up in indignation.

What’s really fun about Carpenter, as Sunday night’s performance made clear, is how passionate he is about sharing and proclaiming the beauty of organ music — by any means necessary. For him, the method of choice is showmanship.

It started when he walked onstage wearing a tiny black jacket tailored to extremity and adorned with dazzling sequined epaulets and lapels. Beneath this he wore slim jeans that looked like acid-washing done by Jackson Pollock. And when he worked the organ, his spangled cowboy boots sparkled and danced like something from a semilegal fireworks shop.

Carpenter’s quest is to promote the dynamism and musical “colors” of his instrument. While pianists talk of “color,” he said, the piano delivers only subtle shadings compared to the wild contrasts of the organ (which, after all, is designed to encompass all the sounds of an orchestra, and more).

He spent the evening reveling in that stirring range. As for percussion, he conceded that compared to the piano, the organ is “the least rhythmic instrument.”

“It just grinds,” he joked, “and not in a good way.”

Carpenter proceeded to take the organ through sprightly paces via an adaptation of one of Liszt’s solo piano pieces, Transcendental Etude No. 5, “Feux Follets.” The nickname means “fireflies” or “will o’ the wisps,” and the music was unbelievably light and euphoric compared to some of the bombastic Bach works he played at other points in the evening, which to a layperson sound very Phantom of the Opera … in a good way, of course.

After the intermission, Carpenter returned wearing another jaw-dropping outfit: super-skinny jeans glittering with crystals in peacock shades, and a diaphanous black shirt. The back of the blouse was really just a curtain of loose strings, which in addition to being quite a fashion statement, allowed the audience to see the muscles of his back working like dynamos while he played. Show and tell.

Carpenter made a pops-like — but also moving and clever — choice by playing his own organ arrangements of two themes by Japanese film composer Joe Hisaishi, from the soundtracks to animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s films Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Pops but not pandering. But did he fall into a bit of pandering for the local crowd when he mentioned that he lived in North Carolina for four years (high school in Winston-Salem, his biography reveals), and he really, really loves grits? I’m going to say no, because everyone with taste loves grits.

A subtler local reference came during an interlude of improvisation, something he said is the best way to “get to know” a strange instrument. The improv included a brief but distinct excerpt from the Confederate anthem "Dixie," which caused me to laugh out loud — the rest of the 1,000 people in the room either didn’t catch it, or didn’t find it funny at all.

A couple of encores and at least three standing O’s, and it was over. Before leaving, however, Carpenter said the advantage of being a “classical superstar” as opposed to a “real superstar” is the ability to get to know one’s fans. At which point he promoted his Facebook page (3,200 “likes” and counting).

Sure, it’s social media salesmanship, but it’s nice to see on Carpenter’s Facebook page today that he promises to return to Nashville. Then I guess we — and our proud organ — will no longer be a one-night stand.

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