Cameron Carpenter puts Kennedy Center organ through its paces

October 17, 2013

The Rubenstein Family Organ, the concert instrument recently installed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, is getting a workout this season. A series of three concerts will feature three young masters of “the king of instruments,” each representing a different aspect of organ performance. The first of these, Cameron Carpenter, opened the series Wednesday night before what is likely the largest audience for a solo organ recital seen in these parts in quite a while.

Carpenter is the black sheep of the organ world. Ask most organists about him and you will get a roll of the eyes and perhaps a comment about the sequins he favors on his heels, the better to see his feet flash over the pedals.

What Carpenter does — favoring his own inimitable arrangements over more established organ repertory — belongs more to the tradition of the theater organ, with its bells-and-whistles style of semi-improvised film scores.

This came across both in Carpenter’s choice of programming and in the way he played it. In Bach’s sixth trio sonata for organ (G major, BWV 530), he sounded dutiful and a little bored. The slow movement received the first of many intriguing registrations — the choice of stops pulled on the instrument, which can open up different worlds of sound — with the pedal on a very low stop with a lot of chiff, the sound of expelled air.

Carpenter’s registrations became truly phantasmagoric in his only other selection that was originally written for the organ, Marcel Dupré’s extraordinary variations on the French carol “Noël Nouvelet.” Carpenter evoked everything from shepherds playing on rustic bagpipes to a descent of space aliens.


Cameron Carpenter. (Heiko Laschitzki/Heiko Laschitzki)

Where he really came alive was in the kooky arrangements, in which Carpenter used the organ — 58 independent stops, almost 5,000 pipes in 85 ranks — to create an orchestral palette of sound. Carpenter’s hilarious arrangement of a Mozart piano sonata (D major, K. 284) brought out inner lines in an attractive way and kept the ear always tickled by the startling registration changes every half-phrase, particularly in the third-movement variations.

That virtuoso changing of registration was most striking in his dazzling arrangement of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, in which just about every stop was featured somehow, down to the Clochettes or Zimbelstern, which produces a tinkling bell sound, and a low pedal trill that sounded like distant thunder. His arrangement of ­Scriabin’s fourth piano sonata was the least effective in this regard, relying too much on the swell pedal, with enough rapid crescendo and diminuendo to make one feel seasick.

Instead of playing his own new work, “Music for an Imaginary Film,” completed but not yet in his fingers, Carpenter offered his arrangements of a Bach cello suite prelude, the same one that he played as an encore last month for the National Symphony Orchestra season opener, and a sentimental trifle called “Love Song No. 2.” In the same vein, this night’s encores were more theatrical arrangements, of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” and Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The more traditional side of the organ will be featured on the next concert in the series, a recital Feb. 5 by Paul Jacobs. On Friday, you can get a preview of Jacobs’s startling technique when he plays a free concert at 7:30 p.m. at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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