Cameron Carpenter is a controversial figure in the organ world. He’s young — 33 — has his hair cut in a mohawk, and he performs in organ boots studded with rhinestones. As a musician, he is brilliant, virtuosic and occasionally sloppy. He has set out to make the organ, usually the province of specialists and churches, a mainstream instrument. To judge from the whooping and hollering crowd that filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for his solo recital Wednesday night, he is succeeding.
Carpenter is throwing down a gauntlet in the face of tradition. He wants to make music that reaches lay audiences who don’t care about traditions of registrations and voicings, who simply respond to how something is played. He observes that the organ is the instrument that has historically changed most to reflect the technologies of its day — the organ of César Franck, he pointed out from the stage, was modified to do things that Bach couldn’t have dreamed of. In keeping with this idea of evolution, Carpenter has developed a traveling electronic organ that enables him to perform around the world, in a range of halls and other spaces that don’t have an organ of their own. (On Wednesday, of course, he performed on the concert hall’s Rubenstein Family Organ, presented by the National Symphony Orchestra in a concert series that offers tickets at $15 a pop.)
His approach raises existential questions about music. To what degree is the music he’s playing actually “by” Bach? Carpenter played four of his works, starting with the A Major prelude and including a trio sonata he wrote to teach his sons to play the organ. Or “by” Shostakovich, whose “Festive Overture” offered a bracing fanfare near the program’s start, followed by neurotic keyboard scramblings? Or “by” César Franck, whose 1st chorale in E Major got a somewhat rambling, discursive performance? How could it be, when the registrations and rhythms, the play of timbre and chord and dynamic are so very much Carpenter’s own? Are we really hearing Messiaen’s “Dieu parmi nous,” which had little of Messiaen’s delicate ethereal quality and yet an immediacy, and birdsong, that were unmistakably the composer’s?
Short answer: If you’re wedded to the way things should be done according to the well-trodden rules of performance, Carpenter is not the performer for you. If you’re drawn to vivid, distinctive music-making that connects strongly with its listeners, though, you will probably like it. The audience certainly did — those, at least, who weren’t sitting in stony silence under the barrage of sound.
My own lingering question about Carpenter is about the degree of substance beneath the fireworks. I was not captivated by his latest recording, “If you could read my mind,” which seemed empty to my ear and raised some issues of taste. Wednesday’s recital burned away my doubts in the same way that a live opera performance can eliminate the nagging questions raised by watching a high-definition broadcast. Carpenter is a stage animal, in the best and most natural way — starting with his onstage remarks to the audience, which are informative and funny and easygoing and natural in tone and make you want to hear what he’s going to do.
More to the point, though, he’s a stage animal as a performer — and not just because of gimmicks such as changing his outfit at intermission or starting the second half by taking a selfie from the organ bench. The sounds he gets from the organ are not always beautiful and not always things you’d want to listen to over and over on a CD player at home. But the immediacy and intensity of his playing; the way he creates dynamic effects, swelling a sound from a pianissimo to a thundering forte; or the sincerity of the three-movement improvisation he played, which moved from adroit fingering work to sentimental near-schmaltziness to a thunderous close; are all things that keep you riveted when you’re hearing them live. As for taste, it’s kind of irrelevant: He’s aiming to be trashy and vulgar and raise eyebrows, but brattiness is not his main purpose.
We talk so much, in the classical music field, about the need to break down barriers and reach new audiences and do things differently. Carpenter — with a great deal of love and reverence for the classical music canon — is doing exactly that. Inevitably, those who like the old ways may bridle at the result, but frankly, it doesn’t matter what traditionalists think. The point is to have vivid music that excites people. When you get a concert hall laughing in delight and shouting at Bach or Mozart (an arrangement of the “Turkish” concerto was the first encore), or, heaven knows, Widor (whose “Toccata” was the final, bravura finish), not because you’re dumbing it down but because you’re pepping it up, you’re doing something right.