Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cameron Carpenter at the LA Phil

Last year I wrote with extreme enthusiasm about the LA Phil debut of American organist Cameron Carpenter. So it was with substantial excitement that I anticipated his recital the following year.

As is his custom, Cameron did not publicise the evening's program in advance. Instead he gave a preshow talk until three minutes before the start, despite having pulled an all-nighter. The question and answer session revealed a deep musical insight and carefully considered positions, elaborating briefly on the innovations of Hope-Jones in the 1920s, the errors of Virgil Fox, and the extent to which Marc-Andre Hamelin is the perfect embodiment of Toscanini's unachieved ideal, the delivery of the text. He also spoke at length about the debut of the digital organ in early 2014, a decade long project of his to provide for the organ what has long been considered normal for all other instruments - a standardized yet infinitely customizable interface and tonal palette.

Cameron began with the Prelude from the Back Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, building on the theme with inversions and interpolations of his own. He followed this immediately with the Bach Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542, not 578). The fugue in particular drove relentlessly, interweaving its many voices with equal consistency despite a much wider variation in registration than might traditionally be employed.

Following this Cameron played for us his organ transcription of Isaac Albeniz' Evocaciรณn from his Iberia suite. I saw this as a possible nod to Hamelin's extraordinary recording of the suite in 2005, although the piece certainly plays well on the organ. In some ways the organ swaps limitations in tone for limitations in touch, but in no way loses its poetic ability.

Cameron then asked us to join him for a pseudo-intellectual moment as he explained what he meant by the organ being an irony-free instrument. As a result, the performer must give back what the machine itself lacks, in particular, "... sensuality, which the organ can give us in spades, in direct defiance of all that is sacred and holy". From this he segued to a discussion of Marcel Dupre, one of the most significant composers and organists of the 20th century. "Behind his bourgeois high-collared facade lurked a schizophrenic fashion show of musical personalities." To illustrate this he performed Dupre's Variations on Noel, in which the basic medieval carol melody is sliced, diced, and examined from every angle.

He rounded out the first half with his transcription of Richard Rogers' score for George Balachine's ballet Slaughter on 10th Avenue, featured in the 1936 Broadway musical comedy On Your Toes. Featuring a superb collage of evocative period music, the piece is defined by the presence of a soft, simple melody at its core underscoring the central tragedy of the work.

The second half began with a transcription of the highly recognizable Scherzo from Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, a piece perfectly suited to performance on the organ. Cameron followed this with a discussion of the music and life of Charles Ives, a composer who lived and worked in near-total isolation. As a result, his music is still original today. In Cameron's words "... still totally avant garde. It's not even in the garde...". He introduced the next piece as the 3rd movement from the Concord Sonata, a piece that's nearly 100 years old. The sonata's movements are entitled Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau, after the principle Transcendentalists that formed the center of the movement into which the piece was composed. Following this generous introduction, he duly dispatched the very musically interesting piece, complete with the "most sycophantically stereotypic church organ sound [Cameron] can muster" for the snippet of Here Comes The Bride.

Next up Cameron sought to honour the spirit of Brooklyn (about which his previous performances on that stage this week had been) by performing an improvisation on a theme generated by translating the letters b, r, o, o, etc onto the keyboard. But first he was careful to define improvisation as "the performance of a work of music which has not yet been notated and rehearsed and will not be heard again, which is not the same as making it up as you go along". He also told us he'd draw on George Gershwin and Lou Reed as he progressed. He took a break to announce that the third movement would have a poetic rather than a musical theme, and recited Walt Whitman poem 68:

Sometimes with one I love, I fill myself with rage, for fear I effuse unreturn'd love;
But now I think there is no unreturn'd love - the pay is certain, one way or another;
(I loved a certain person ardently, and my love was not return'd;
Yet out of that, I have written these songs.)

After such a musical treat the audience demanded no fewer than a dozen curtain calls, and received two encores, including a transcription of Chopin's Minute Waltz, showcasing Cameron's extreme ability to play with his feet. 

During the first encore, an error with preset registrations had the organ go silent for a stanza. Without skipping a beat he continued to play, giving a rare insight into the clicks and clacks of the organ console, and providing a (hopefully intentional) drop between cascades of rich sound.

Overall, the audience and I attended with varied though high expectations. None left disappointed.