Cameron Carpenter might be the closest we have to the virtuoso musical showmen of the 19th century, like Liszt or Paganini. In his Washington area debut Friday night, the 31-year-old organist left a sparse Strathmore audience amazed after a surprisingly diverse recital, ranging from Bach and Bernstein to Albeniz, Ives and even improvised variations on “Shortnin’ Bread,” all served up with blazing technique, wit and enthusiasm for the organ nothing short of contagious.
Carpenter’s mission is to rescue the organ from its fusty, church-bound reputation. Although he plays traditional pipe organs, he prefers their digital descendants, like the Rodgers 928 he used Friday. Tricked out with three manuals, dozens of stops and a bench providing a view of Carpenter’s fleet footwork (and bejeweled footwear), the instrument roared and whispered through six banks of loudspeakers, stacked like at a rock concert.
Carpenter and his music might be called “flamboyant,” but don’t let it fool you. Organ purists may resist his skin-tight spangled slacks, modified mohawk or enhancements to the written score, but beneath the sparkling veneer is a deeply serious musician who composes, transcribes and presides over his instrument with uncommon mastery.
Addressing the audience, Carpenter called the organ a sensual “hanging garden of sound,” and he made good on that description at every turn. His simmering transcription of Albeniz’s “Evocación” captured a sultry Iberian afternoon, with impressionist colorings and the distant sound of guitars.
Carpenter’s kaleidoscopic, delightfully unpredictable registration is his strong suit. The Technicolored blurps, bells and dainty chirps emanating from Bernstein’s Candide Overture rendered it a version fit for Munchkinland, while Marcel Dupré’s “Variations on a Noel” displayed the instrument’s vast possibilities, with majestic chords, buzzing bassoons and, in the first variation, a tornado of pedaled notes. A Bach prelude for solo cello was reimagined as a cosmic etude, and a transcription of Charles Ives’s “Alcotts,” with its Beethoven motif (and satire), unfolded cinematically.
With the audience cheering approval, Carpenter’s performance transcended his old-fashioned instrument. Now he just needs to convince the rest of the world.
Huizenga is a freelance writer.