Cameron Carpenter, a classical organ rebel, is coming to the Kennedy Center

September 6, 2013

Most musicians plan for months for major solo recital debuts. But for his first solo recital at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 16, Cameron Carpenter isn’t sure what he’s going to play.

This is not out of line with his reputation. Carpenter, 32, has become known as the bad boy of the organ world. His concert garb is studded with Swarovski crystals, his repertory is unorthodox, and he’s lionized by some and reviled by others for his old-school blend of virtuosity and showmanship. His goal is to break out of the organ closet and become “a musician on an equal professional level with anybody else that you hear about, not just with other organists.”

But his uncertainty about his Kennedy Center program isn’t a devil-may-care gesture, nor is it a statement of principle. It’s just that as an organist, he’s dependent on the instrument he’s using, and he’s never played the Kennedy Center’s new Rubenstein organ before. A lot of his limited practice time before the show will be devoted to discovering the strengths and abilities of this particular instrument and figuring out which pieces will showcase it, and him, best.

Carpenter wants to make the organ a mainstream instrument. At least, he wants to be part of the classical music mainstream, and he looks to be well on his way. He’s got two Kennedy Center appearances this fall: In addition to the solo recital, he’ll appear with the National Symphony Orchestra at its season-opening gala on Sept. 29. Before that, he will perform at the Berliner Philharmonie; after that, he is to record his first album for his new label, Sony, which will release it next spring.

As Carpenter sees it, the biggest impediment for an organ soloist is dependency on an instrument: Not every concert hall has an organ, and not every organ is good. “Modern major management is not equipped to deal with churches,” Carpenter said from his home in Berlin last month. He’s got his own predictably idiosyncratic solution. Just after his Kennedy Center concert, he’ll fly to Massachusetts to get his brand-new, specially built, half-million-dollar touring organ, which will enable him to perform anywhere in the world. “All I actually want,” Carpenter says, “is to perform on the same instrument on which I practice.”


Cameron Carpenter (Heiko Laschitzki)

Why is this controversial? Because Carpenter’s traveling organ is digital. The organ tradition as we see it today centers on the “king of instruments,” the pipe organ, each one site-specific, each one slightly different, each costing millions of dollars (the price tag on the Kennedy Center’s was $2 million). Digital organs, by contrast, are seen as soulless, impersonal. Carpenter begs to differ. In his view, organs have always been on the cutting edge of technology, and the way that the sound is generated — digitally or acoustically — is less important than how the instrument is played — all the more so since the organ is the only instrument with no direct relationship between the level of sound and the player’s physical stamina.

“At some point, the relationship between the idea of the organ and the reality of the organ got inverted,” he says. When “the organ, the instrument, became the point, rather than the performer or the music . . . we [started having] to beg or apologize for the organ as something that deserves attention.”

Organists may be horrified, but Carpenter says, “My target audience is not the organ community. I tend to avoid works that encourage me to speak in an encoded language. Few languages are more encoded than understanding what is or is not happening in particular organ works. . . . ‘Oh, did he use the hautbois or the trompette in this Franck work?,’ as if this could ever be relevant.”

The one piece he’s sure will be on the program on Oct. 16 is a world premiere: his own “Music for an Imaginary Film,” a composition written specifically for the new Sony album. It’s a signal that, however avant-garde he seems in person, his primary concern is reaching listeners. The music is “tonal, audience-driven, experimental, and sort of forward-thinking but basically very 1920s-grounded,” he says, adding, “I’m not trying to be recognized as a composer, but I see there is an important role for me in a Rachmaninoff way . . . a career artist virtuoso improviser playing a lot of his own music.”

As for the NSO gala, the program there is fixed: Carpenter will play the final movement of Saint-Saëns’s famous “organ symphony.” The encore, however, is up to him. Originally, Carpenter planned to play a Tchaikovsky piece as a gesture of solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community. But even that idea represented too much commitment. By press time, Carpenter had changed his mind.

Going big on opera

Carpenter sets a good tone for fall: This is a season of big gestures and glamour and excitement. On the musical front, no gesture is more outsized than that of the Washington National Opera, which is celebrating the year’s two bicentenarians, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, with productions of two of their biggest operas. The season opens with Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” on Sept. 15, featuring Deborah Voigt and conducted by the company’s music director, Philippe Auguin, and continues with Verdi’s sprawling, ambitious “Forza del Destino” — sorry, “Force of Destiny” in the WNO’s new all-English nomenclature — from Oct. 12 to 26, in a production by Francesca Zambello, one of whose specialties is bringing sprawling operas to heel. Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra will offer their own contribution to the Wagner year by performing the third act of Wagner’s final opera, “Parsifal” (which Wagner called a Bühnenweihfestspiele — a “festival work for the dedication of the stage”), in concert on Oct. 10, 11 and 12. (All three events will take place at the Kennedy Center.)

The year’s other major anniversary is that of Benjamin Britten, whose 100th birthday has been somewhat overshadowed in Washington this season by the two big birthday boys. The Maryland Opera Studio, however, will turn its spotlight on Britten with a production of the composer’s small-town comedy “Albert Herring,” about a Caspar Milquetoast-esque grocer’s son who finally finds a way to cut loose (Nov. 22-26 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center).

Fall Critics' Picks: Classical Music

Then there are operas nobody’s heard of. The ensemble Eighth Blackbird, having brought a memorable “Pierrot Lunaire” to the Kennedy Center last year, will come to the Atlas’s new music series in November with a brand-new but not unrelated work: “Columbine’s Paradise Theater,” by Amy Beth Kirsten, presents Pierrot along with other commedia dell’arte figures in the kind of theatrical-musical event that this instrumental sextet has become better and better at creating and animating. (Nov. 15 and 16 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.)

And Opera Lafayette, the home-grown Washington company that is increasingly putting itself and French Baroque opera on the international map, is taking on what may be its most ambitious project yet: a pairing of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” with Philidor’s “Les Femmes Vengées,” an opéra-comique that came before “Cosi” and may have inspired it. Opera Lafayette will present both operas in a single set (a re-creation of the 1775 original) and perform them in New York and in Versailles, France, as a double bill, with the same cast. In Washington, the double bill will be spread out over a couple of months: “Così” on Oct. 18 and 19, “Les Femmes Vengées” on Jan. 17 (both at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater). Die-hards can then travel up to New York to see the two works back-to-back on Jan. 23. Talk about grand gestures — and daring experiments.

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Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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