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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Concert Review: Of Man...and Beast

Cameron Carpenter plays Town Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Organ master Cameron Carpenter and his large touring friend.
Photo © 2013 Sony Classical
The organ is among the most versatile keyboard instruments, capable of simulating the sound of a whole symphony orchestra or forcing church congregations to their collective knees. On Thursday night, Cameron Carpenter brought his International Touring Organ to Town Hall, in a concert that pushed the boundaries of the repertory for his instrument.

Gimlet-eyed, Mr. Carpenter strode onto the Town Hall stage. Settling onto the small raised bench, he launched nto a transcription of the Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich. This powerful, uncompromising opening set the tone for the rest of the concert: serious music played with the intent that this innovative new instrument be treated as a platform for the classical listener. the vast variety of available voices and Mr. Carpenter's pulse-pounding pedal-work proved to be a potent combination, with the instrument reproducing not the exact sound of a symphony orchestra but certainly its force.

Tall and aristocratic, Mr. Carpenter eschewed formal concert attire for silvered jeans, glitter-heeled cowboy boots and a slicked-back black Mohawk. Yet in addressing his audience he was at once geeky, awkward, enthusiastic, and appealing explaining the challenges of the works on this concert program and the advantages and impracticalities presented (often at the same time) by his chosen instrument.


That instrument is the International Touring Organ, a five-manual beast with pedal board that breaks into three component parts and packs neatly into road cases. It is capable of imitating winds, percussion, brass, church and Wurlitzer, Hammond B-3, and whatever other samples or instrument sounds can fit into its substantive memory banks. This huge digital instrument (built by Marshall and Ogletree, a specialty firm in Needham, MA) is surrounded by speakers and bathed in colored lights. A video screen above the stage allowed the audience a closer look at Mr. Carpenter's limber technique.

After silencing the audience with a dazzling Bach fugue, Mr. Carpenter turned the clock ahead to the 19th century for Choral Prelude No. 1 by Cesar Franck. One of the Romantic composers who embraced the organ as his primary instrument, Franck's work combines sweet, hymnal tones with displays of dazzling counterpoint. Mr. Carpenter set this against lush orchestration, played with warmth and luxury of tone that left no doubt as to the capabilities of this remarkable instrument.

Those (ahem) key differences were at the forefront of the three Chopin Etudes that ended the first part of the program. Playing the organ allowed Mr. Carpenter to assign the difficuylt left-hand parts to his feet, while his hands skipped between manuals to make the melodic lines duets between block-voices in his keyboard's memory banks. With chords resonating with sustain, these sometimes delicate piano works became robust, brawling celebrations of sound, allowing the listener a whole new way to hear Chopin's genius.

The second half of the program was built around three sonatas: Mozart's Sonata in D, Bach's Trio Sonata and Mr. Carpenter's arrangement of Scriabin's supremely difficult Sonata No. 4. The Mozart acquired an added dimension in this performance, with the challenging first movement followed by the simple tune of the slow movement. A complex set of variations, ranging from virtuosic to aria-like showed how central melodic drive is to Mozart's music, with the expanded voices of the organ again providing new textures and colors throughout.

The Bach followed, with Mr. Carpenter splitting the original arrangement of harpsichord, violin and cello between left hand, right hand and foot pedals. In this new arrangement, the music proved potent and earthy, producing unexpected potency in a version that would have fascinated the old master of Leipzig.

The organist's own Music for an Imaginary Film which followed it--an indulgent exercise in soundtrack writing that was the concert's lone weak point. Happily, Mr. Carpenter finished with the fiery Scriabin sonata, pushing himself and his instrument through this Russian composer's dark, chromatic writing to thrilling effect. In a brief encore, Mr. Carpenter treated his audience to a set of variations on the Leslie Bricusse song "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, serving as one last tour through the remarkable voices held within the International Touring Organ.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.