Have Organ, Will Travel

Cameron Carpenter and the International Touring Organ

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Have Organ, Will Travel

Carpenter’s new release for Sony Classics, If You Could Read My Mind, effectively demonstrates both the versatility of the ITO and the performer’s exceptional musical range. On the CD are substantive examples from the core organ repertoire. There’s Bach, of course, the Organ Sonata No. 6 in G major, BWV 530. The opening Vivace darts and dances with a joyous buoyancy and, for the Lento movement that follows, Carpenter subtly varies the tonal character of the melody, employing slight but distinct variations in warmth, hue, and intensity. The closing Allegro is active and celebratory. Marcel Dupré’s Variations sur un Noël, for which Carpenter punches in the mass and timbre of a large French Romantic instrument, gets a reading that maximizes the sense of organic development inherent to the work’s theme and variations construction.

Bach and Dupré were working organists who also composed, and Carpenter, too, writes original music. His ten-minute Music for an Imaginary Film is, as expected, highly cinematic but, like the best movie music, seems to express mood and emotional states rather than on-screen action. Carpenter composes in an advanced tonal idiom, but is really much more concerned with harmonic density and texture than with issues of consonance or dissonance. The disc also holds five Song Paraphrases, original compositions that hearken back to Liszt’s opera paraphrases. Carpenter’s treatments of five popular songs (including the title track, Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” plus songs by Burt Bacharach, Leonard Cohen, Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse, and Bob Montgomery) are quite imaginative, employing some of the ITO’s more exotic stops.

Carpenter is well known for his arrangements and transcriptions, of which he’s produced more than 100. Leading off the CD is Cello Suite Elaboration, which deals authoritatively with the implications of Bach’s famous G Major Prelude for solo cello in very much the same spirit as Busoni’s great piano transcription of the Bach Chaconne for solo violin. Rachmaninoff’s plaintive Vocalise is soulfully performed, as is Carpenter’s take on Ástor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, in which the sound of a bandoneon is effectively evoked, with sudden shifts in volume and a shuddering decay of the solo voice at the piece’s conclusion. Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture features not just a glorious range of timbres (the carousel-like sonority near the end is perfect) but also a rock-solid rhythmic sense, as the soloist negotiates the varying time signatures and tricky cross-rhythms.

Finally, there’s one of Carpenter’s many transcriptions of a piano work, in this case Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata in F Sharp major, Op. 30. Typically, organists begin with the piano, later switching to organ and leaving behind the other instrument. Not so with Carpenter. “I started the organ and piano independently, at the same time,” he told me. “I still play the piano extremely seriously and would consider the piano as my ‘workshop.’ All of the piano works that I transcribe I could perform in concert. I would hesitate to say that it would be very good—I would certainly rather hear Yuja Wang or one of my other friends play that piece than me—but I have a command of it that’s tolerable.” Scriabin was a synesthete—he saw colors when he heard music—and Carpenter’s “colorization” of the Sonata would surely have appealed to him.

The recording, accomplished at the Methuen Memorial Music Hall in Methuen, Massachusetts, is tonally resplendent with a wide dynamic range. Bassisprodigious:subwooferownerswill get a good return on their investments. One of Carpenter’s earlier Telarc releases, Revolutionary, was produced as a multichannel SACD, but I sensed no regret on the performer’s part that Sony had no interest in giving If You Could Read My Mind the audiophile treatment. “I’m a typical Millennial, in terms of my own music consumption,” he declared. “The highest fidelity that I have access to in my own home is a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones.” Carpenter doesn’t own a CD player, downloading all of his music for casual listening. A high-resolution release was “just not felt to be viable.” If a large number of Carpenter’s fans are in his demographic, that conclusion is probably correct.

Sony’s release includes a DVD that holds six performances, with four pieces from the CD—the Bernstein and Scriabin arrangements, the Bach Cello Suite Elaboration, and Music for an Imaginary Film. Purchasers also get two more of Carpenter’s transcriptions of piano works, Chopin’s Minute Waltz (the organist’s pedal work is pretty amazing) and Liszt’s La Campanella. There’s also a six-minute mini-documentary, Birth of the International Touring Organ that’s breathlessly self-promoting and melodramatic but...well, this is an artist who is, as his first piano teacher says in the documentary, “larger than life.”

Eventually in our interview the name of Virgil Fox (1912-1980) had to come up. Fox, who recorded for numerous labels over a span of 35 years, toured in the 1970s with his “Heavy Organ” programs, appearing, for example, at the Fillmore East with a light show churning away behind him as he thundered through Bach’s Toccata in D Minor. He was, undeniably, a successful classical musician attempting to expand his audience as a flamboyant “popularizer.” I’d read some earlier interviews with Carpenter in which he seemed to bristle a little at comparisons. “When I hear people say I remind them of him or getting very nostalgic about it, I think they’re probably not really listening to me,” he told a Washington newspaper in 2011. But I felt I had to put it out there, and ask Carpenter how he’s similar to Fox, and how he’s different. Thankfully, he didn’t hang up. Yes, he allowed, Virgil Fox was the best-known American organist of his day and a commercial success—parallels that the young artist certainly has no problem with—and Carpenter noted that “he was the first person to pull the organ out of the church and give it an alternative identity.” To contrast himself with Fox, however, Cameron Carpenter ultimately settled on issues of technology. “The organ that he played was ridiculously, abominably ugly. Virgil Fox was constantly in trouble with the builders of that organ because he publicly maligned it all the time. He knew how bad that organ sounded. He always called it ‘the device’ or ‘the electric.’ He didn’t have the tools, other than that he had an instrument that allowed him to play in places other than churches. Virgil Fox never had to face the problem that I had to face—the constant approach by increasingly greasy, washed-up organ salesmen from every company under the sun offering to build one or another cheap, crappy instrument for me. It was extremely tempting on many occasions to just get on with my career, as I could have done even two years ago, by having an instrument immediately available. If I had done that, we wouldn’t be speaking right now. Because we wouldn’t have an album that was worth talking about. It was such a soul-killing experience even to consider it. I did the right thing and I’ve got an instrument that, even if I vanish into dust, will still be one of the great organs in the world. It needs only a little time to be recognized as that, but time goes very fast.”