Critic’s notebook: Cameron Carpenter and Paul Jacobs offer an organ-filled Sunday


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Sunday afternoon at 4, a fit, affable young man with close-cropped dark hair and wearing a dark suit walked down the aisle of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles greeting his large audience. “Hi, I’m Cameron Carpenter,” he said shaking hands with conservatively dressed older couples. “Hey, how y’doin’ man,” he said, slapping a younger, more casual guy on the back. He gladly signed autographs. His collar was jewel encrusted.

A few minutes later he had changed for his organ recital into what has become something of a trademark outfit – tight white jeans and form-fitting white top encrusted with Swarovski crystals, front and back. Carpenter sat at the keyboard of what First Congregational calls “perhaps the largest musical instrument existing in any church in the world,” and began working the 20,000 pipes in his arrangement of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”


It was a shocking performance that implied things I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about in a church. Carpenter found gaudy organ textures that illustrated rather than mimicked Debussy’s orchestra and that gave a pretty good idea of the erotic ballet that scandalized Paris at its premiere. Carpenter’s back glittered as he sinuously operated the manuals. His fingers danced. His feet were balletic on the pedals. The act was garish. The interpretation was a critical fraction-of-an-inch away from being over-the-top.

The measurement I use for the fraction is a musicality scale. Carpenter is, of course, controversial. He is technically the most accomplished organist I have ever witnessed and the most complete master of his instrument’s vast array of colors and sound effects. And the most outrageous (at least going back to Virgil Fox’s “Heavy Organ” concerts at the Fillmore West in the 1960s). And, most important of all, the most musical.

How that all adds up, I’m not sure. Carpenter means to be one of the rare musicians who changes the game of his instrument and of the art of performance, a Glenn Gould or Maria Callas or Leonard Bernstein or Kronos Quartet of the organ. Like them, he is a smasher of cultural and classical music taboos. Like another, Gustavo Dudamel, he is 29.

Just how radical, and perhaps revolutionary, an artist Carpenter is was highlighted Sunday by the fact that 45 minutes after his nearly three-hour recital (he’s irrepressible), Paul Jacobs, with whom Carpenter had once studied, gave his own recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although only four years older than Carpenter, Jacobs, who is chair of the Juilliard School organ department, nonetheless represents the more respectable side of organ playing. The two recitals had almost nothing in common. Carpenter announced that he has zero-tolerance for printed programs, wanting music instead to arrive fresh without expectations. He played a variety of short pieces, dazzlers every one of them, but few of any real substance. He gave an articulate, intelligent, entertaining running commentary on the music, on the organ and on himself.

Jacobs didn’t wear a tie, but he was formal in suit and white shirt and his program was formal as well. A last-minute substitute for Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, who became ill and couldn’t fly (not that she could have gotten out of Paris anyway), Jacobs replaced her program of short French pieces with a substantial one that began with Reger’s convoluted Organ Sonata No. 2 and ended with Liszt’s amazing, massive Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam.”

Although Jacobs made a couple of jokes from the stage and removed his coat for the Liszt, he proved an otherwise straightforward, accomplished, satisfying player who is not especially sensual and who puts musical structure first.


Carpenter, on the other hand, demonstrated a love for clouds of organ sound, for summoning up mists and then cutting them through with thunder, which worked especially well in two short works by Marcel Dupré. Carpenter laid the schmaltz on thick, especially in his own music (he played two of his Three Intermezzi for cinema organ). His arrangement of Schubert’s song, “The Erlking,” conjured up Goethe’s poem with incomparably potent sonic imagery. He musically flirted shamelessly in Louis Vierne’s “Nyads.”

But when it came to Bach, Carpenter played two preludes and fugues from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” really fast, because he could. And he made a soup of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G, again because he seemed unable to stop himself. He, however, improvised an impressive fugue on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” (he must have worked some of that out beforehand).

So where does that leave us? I question that much sentiment and ego and wonder what Carpenter may be covering up. It is enough to be Spider-Man of the organ to become a superstar. But if Carpenter is Spider-Man with a soul, then we may never think about the organ in the same way again.

-- Mark Swed


Cameron Carpenter, flash and substance on an organ (with or without pipes)

A profile of Cameron Carpenter