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.”
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.”