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Music review: Cameron Carpenter makes his Walt Disney Concert Hall recital debut

May 9, 2011 |  2:40 pm

Cameron Cameron Carpenter’s costumes need to be dispensed with quickly -- they were neither the most radical nor remarkable aspect of his first recital on the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ Sunday evening. But he does like to be noticed.

First half: tight, tie-dyed jeans; a watch fob; a short, military-style jacket with large fuzzy-looking (from a distance) epaulets and a fringe of glitter, white shirt, glitter booties.

Second half: tight black pants plastered with swathes of glitter; a black top with a sheer, see-through back; same booties.

He performed with the organ console pushed as close to the audience as possible. The organ pipes were not lighted, just the organist. It’s a look.

Carpenter had been billed as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Brahms Unbound” festival this month. But he’s an organist who doesn’t decide upon his programs in advance, and he told his listeners not to be deluded into thinking Sunday would be a Brahms day. The composer wrote some early organ pieces and then his last music was for organ. Carpenter said he figured that the organ killed Brahms.

But by evening’s end, I began to wonder whether the organ might not be after Carpenter next. His brilliance, originality, phenomenal playing and seriousness are, by now, well known. For this recital, he arrived in town three weeks early to spend quality time with the Disney organ. But at this recital, his unprecedented audacity also took him into dangerously uncharted territories.

At his most outrageous, he offered the premiere of his transcription of the last movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. A musical meal for a single human octopus, this is something that cannot be dispensed with quickly, although Carpenter did even that. His was –- at less than 14 minutes -- by far the fastest performance of the movement I’ve ever heard.

The recital included standard organ works, but nothing, of course, was standard. Bach’s Toccata in F, Brahms’ Prelude and Fugue in G Minor and César Franck’s Chorale No. 1 were lovingly, if extravagantly, dressed in the wildest of organ sonorities. He likes his glitter, after all.

In two Liszt transcriptions, the organist sexed-up the already flashy “Feux Follets” from the Transcendental Etudes and “La Campanella’ from the Paganini Etudes with a dazzling array of organ sound effects and spectacular pedal work. Carpenter has feet that operate like other people’s fingers, those bejeweled booties actually finessing highly ornamented melodic lines with commanding musicality.

This may sound like the work of a frustrated composer, but it is rather the work of an uninhibited one. Carpenter has recently signed with a major music publisher, C.F. Peters, and Sunday he played his Opus 2 -- Serenade and Fugue on B.A.C.H., dated this year. The serenade has a nice tune (he said he wrote it when he was 8) and an elaborate fugue on a sinuous theme. It is restless music, changing character and color every few seconds, wheezing in what sounds like fitful stops and starts.

Carpenter’s organ versions of Brahms’ "Academic Festival" Overture and the Mahler movement are also, in their way, original compositions. It is one thing to transcribe piano music for organ, incorporating new qualities of timbre. Composers for centuries have been orchestrating and arranging keyboard music.

Carpenter, for instance, out-Busoni-ed Ferruccio Busoni, who had made a piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, originally for solo violin and played between the Brahms and Mahler transcriptions. Carpenter colorized and monumentalized that piano transcription, but he took nothing away from Bach or Busoni, only added his own new layers.

The orchestral transcriptions, on the other hand, are recompositions. The composers’ orchestrations are dispensed with, replaced by new timbres. The Brahms was a delight, bright and fun. The Mahler was more of a mess.

Carpenter called the project a Mahler monologue, although it was more like a Mahler wrestling match. Not only does he assign as many notes as possible to 10 fingers and two feet, he wants his own version of the orchestration as well. His hands were a blur back and forth between the keyboard and the organ stops, as if possessed by Mahler.

Still, there were many moments, in what is clearly a work in progress, of majestic beauty and manic ferocity that took the breath away.

The single encore was Carpenter’s effectively Fellini-esque Concert Paraphrase on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” It was icing on what was already a very rich recital cake. Carpenter is already the most gifted organist in many a generation. And he’s only just begun.


Influences: Unorthodox organist Cameron Carpenter

A conversation with Cameron Carpenter

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Cameron Carpenter. Credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher