Sunday, April 10, 2016

Butler ArtsFest: Organist Cameron Carpenter paints with a full palette at Clowes Hall

Cameron Carpenter: Tireless evangelist for the organ
What confronts you at a Cameron Carpenter recital is immediately irresistible. The whole set-up of the International Touring Organ made for him by Marshall & Ogletree: the monster console and the distribution of eerily illuminated speakers connote spectacle.

His brisk entrance, before he even sits down on the bench, and the look: Stylized mohawk hairstyle, looking more aesthetic than alpha-male, the richly worked texture of his purple suit, the shoes with disco-ball glitter on the heels.

As I said: irresistible — at Clowes Hall Saturday night in a Butler ArtsFest presentation. Then, of course, there's the music itself and the flair of his performance, the boundless digital dexterity, and the richness with which he registers everything at the command of his hands and feet. All of that is extra-available visually from other angles as projected on a large screen overhead.

In witty, erudite remarks from the stage, Carpenter reinforced his commitment to the instrument and his fascination with its seemingly infinite capabilities. In performance, this simultaneous attention to detail and scope never let up Saturday evening.

As his first selection, the Prelude to "Die Meistersinger" illustrated the controlled flamboyance of the Carpenter style. Every motive and melody was clear: the fanfare, the prize song, the processional — the marvelous integration of Wagner's substantial music-drama in a 10-minute masterpiece. The peculiarity of the organ's timbral variety, far exceeding the orchestra for which Wagner composed, oddly underlined the fact that "Die Meistersinger" is a comic opera.

The joke goes that German humor is the world's thinnest book, and it's true "Die Meistersinger" carries the composer's heavy agenda of musical progress. But the Prelude is sublimely happy, even amusing in its juxtaposition and resolution of contraries. You could call up the chattering of the apprentices in the processional music, for example, in Carpenter's performance.

The organ's breadth offered new insight into other works, as Carpenter transcribed them. The "Allegro molto vivace"  (third movement) of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony had its scherzolike opening reinforced by having all the scurrying figures focused on one pair of hands. The march that takes over had all the grandeur one could ask, with a booming pedal tremolo heralding the climax. And because the movement was presented in isolation from its fellows, for once it was absolutely gratifying to applaud at its conclusion — a temptation that symphony audiences are rarely able to suppress; the "Adagio lamentoso" follows, a famously unconventional departure from symphonic form.

Often Carpenter's transcriptions bring out new sides to a piece, but this perspective is not without sacrifice. He fully exploited the organ's storytelling potential in his version of Schubert's "Erlkonig," but I would submit that characterizing the father, the distraught son, the supernatural menace and the galloping horse through the organ's vividness minimizes some of the scenario's frightfulness.

The original will always have the advantage of the solo human voice and Goethe's text, of course. But there's also, especially in a concert performance of the original, the inevitable sense of strain and effort the listener feels in the pianist's having to sustain all that galloping, mostly in the left hand. Oddly, despite Carpenter's virtuosity, the organ has a way of abstracting human pathos, putting even sheer muscle work at some remove. The organ hooks into our emotions, but in an inevitably inhuman way. "The monster never breathes," as Stravinsky famously said. Carpenter's "Erlkonig" seems a graphic-novel adaptation of the song, or an anime sketch.

The organ's improvisational legacy was brought into play with a fantasy Carpenter concocted on Henry Mancini's "Whistling in the Dark." Carpenter holds the theater organ in high regard; indeed, he credits that branch of organ history as his initial inspiration for the musical path that has brought him fame. The Clowes audience heard dazzling versions of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and, as encores, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (with the first presentation of the piccolo strain delightfully on the pedals) and "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

J.S. Bach was properly held up as the all-time summit of Carpenter's craft and art. His three Bach items — the symbology of the Trinity did not escape the atheist recitalist — were capped by a magisterial performance of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Again, clarity in presenting its constituents was uppermost. In some passages, I missed hearing the structural framework being partly obscured by the figuration. But it's an article of faith for Carpenter to unpack the "horizontal" crowding of material in favor of a more "vertical" display of the elements Bach wove into the texture.

Carpenter may dissent from Bach's devout Lutheran dedication of his music "soli deo Gloria" (to the glory of God alone), but he made a good case for locating the organ's glory in its universal reach, its amalgamation of sense experience and technology, regardless of the presence or absence of a Creator worthy of worship behind it all.

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