Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Organ recital - Published in the California Tech!

When one imagines feverish controversies in classical music, it's
almost too tempting to picture Beethoven caught "in flagrante delicto"
with one of his students, a snuff box full of suspicious oriental
powders and a lewd portrait on hand. While these allegations remain
unproven, controversies do indeed exist, and many a distinguished
gentleman's toupee is set askew in vociferous argument, normally about
the merits of authentic performance.

It was my supreme pleasure to spend an evening last Sunday listening
to one of the largest controversies in the classical music world.
Whereas advocates of authentic performance everywhere get excited by
the prospect of paying unauthentic sums of money to listen to music
played poorly on authentically imperfect instruments by authentically
untrained musicians, the concert I attended was the complete opposite.

Cameron Carpenter, with just a hint of sequins, walked onto the stage
of the cavernous and dimly lit Walt Disney concert hall, acknowledged
the audience, and sat at the remote organ console placed right on the
edge of the stage. Four rows of keyboards and thousands of switches
were arrayed before him, and as the echoes of applause died down, he
got right into it. The instrument in the Walt Disney hall is both new,
well maintained, and quite extraordinary at 'only' 109 ranks. I can
state with utter confidence that it has never before been played in
quite this manner. In this, his LA debut, he opened with a grand yet
considered Bach Toccata and Fugue in F-sharp major. Bach wrote it in
F-major, but playing music in the key in which it is written is for
musicians who don't know how to transpose. It was a subtle yet clear
break from generations of organists who, with very few exceptions,
have built a towering edifice of traditional and conservative

Cameron Carpenter, already famed amongst organ enthusiasts despite a
career of less than five years, has rebuilt a solid audience and
following for his style of performance, through both a substantial
following on youtube and his indulgence of members of the public. On
Sunday he gave a pre-concert interview and lecture, played some stuff
on the piano, and answered many questions. As the buzzers rang he
excused himself and ran back stage to get ready to perform - something
few if any members of the audience had ever seen before.

By this stage the concert was in full swing. As is his custom, he
announced the program from the console on stage, providing a few scant
hints at the workings of his eccentric and eclectic musical mind. Next
up was the first of two pieces of Brahms on the program - here the
prelude and fugue in g-minor, expertly deconstructed and rebuilt. This
was followed by a piece of Carpenter's own composition, the Serenade
and Fugue on B A C H, which was kaleidoscopic in structure, and
naturally used every stop on the organ (though not all at once).

Before his next piece, he gave an introduction. Cesar Franck was an
organist at Sainte-Clotilde in Paris in the latter half of the 19th
century, and at that time its organ was state-of-the-art. Franck
notated registration, or sound combinations, meticulously. Cameron
explained that was because he wanted to ensure his interpreters were
using the full dynamic range of the organs available at that time. He
said that organ building had come a long way since and that the
original registrations often resulted in muddy or indistinct music, in
which the structural filigree of the music could be lost. Therefore,
while keeping the notes, "...we've dispensed with the rest". This
rendition, too, was one of the most clear performances of the
challenging French romantic organ repertoire I've ever heard.

Having now warmed up the audience and the instrument, Cameron made
good on his assertion that organists must be as technically
accomplished as their concert pianist counterparts by playing two
rather rococo transcriptions of the fearsome Liszt Etudes 'Feux
follets', and 'La campanella'. Here, Cameron demonstrated facility
with the specialised organ technique of 'thumbing down' to play on all
four keyboards and the foot pedals simultaneously. With one final
blast of the organ, including the deepest 32 foot pipe, we took a much
needed break for intermission.

It is sometimes said that in the playing of a pipe organ, one knows
the majesty of god, and in the silencing of a pipe organ, one knows
the mercy of god. There was, however, quite a buzz amongst the few
thousand people who had survived the first half, and in due course we
all filed back in and took our seats. Cameron walked back out on stage
to gasps, mainly from middle aged ladies in the front row, as he had
changed into black sequined tights, a black mesh shirt and white
glittery organ shoes. He took a seat at the console and promptly began
the second half by playing the Brahms Academic Festival Overture.
Earlier he had implied that writing this piece was a substantial
factor in Brahms' demise, and in listening to it, I could see why.

The penultimate offering for the evening was a transcription of Bach's
Chaconne in d-minor, with a substantial nod to Busoni. Within a few
notes of the beginning he had to stop. Turning around, he said "It's
almost like the organ just said 'you want me to do WHAT?'", prompting
giggles from the same middle aged ladies. Turning back to it he
flicked about a hundred switches in some inscrutable order, tested one
of the swell pedals, then began again. The difference was obvious and
within seconds we were swept into a whirling maelstrom of chords and
grinding counterpoint like only Bach can write, reinterpreted and
revealed through the new medium of the pipe organ.

All too soon Cameron began his final piece; a transcription of the
finale of Mahler's fifth symphony. Though he wrote it at 15 he had
been unable to play it in any sensible way until quite recently due to
the extreme technical difficulty of channeling Mahler's monumental
writing for more than a hundred instruments through just ten fingers
and two feet. Like the rest of the program, he played from memory,
once again revealing a fusion of solid musical understanding and a
slight tendency to iconoclasm. Noticeably, it neither saturated nor
sagged, common pitfalls of transcription, but rather rolled steadily
and inexorably from one musical epiphany to the next.

In a state of shock and surprise we, as one, relaxed into our seats
for at least a few nanoseconds before leaping to our feet in rapturous
applause. Cameron took five curtain calls and played one encore, and
in due course we spilled out into the street, both ponderous and
chatty with complete strangers. Every person in the hall that night
looks forward with interest to the next time Cameron Carpenter comes
to perform here.

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