Once upon a time, organists seemed on the verge of a musical revolution. In the 70's, Virgil Fox used to hold rock-style "heavy organ" concerts with psychedelic lights and smoke machines, and could be seen on national TV broadcasts that had his audience literally dancing in the aisle. Fox was criticized for his flamboyance and unconventional playing technique, often performing on an electronic Rodgers Touring Organ which sounded closer to a Hammond than good ol' pipes. But no one did more to promote organ music, or bring it to a wider audience.
Enter 27-year old Cameron Carpenter, who graduated from Juilliard in 2006 and is fast becoming the heir apparent to Fox's flashy mantle. When he's in New York, he can often be found performing on the electronic Marshall and Ogletree organ at Trinity Church, on which he recorded his debut album, Revolutionary, currently out on Telarc. He was at the organ last night for a Halloween program, dressing up for the occasion in white tails and matching high-heeled shoes, custom made to allow him to play the pedals at lightspeed.
Like Fox, Carpenter was a child prodigy, gifted with absolute pitch and a photographic memory that allowed him, at the age of 16, to transcribe Mahler's Fifth Symphony from ear. Like Fox, he's stirred some waves through his unconventional technique, pushing organ performance beyond its accepted - or, some would say, acceptable - limits. And, like Fox, he plays with tremendous passion and flair.
After a circus-like performance of Shostakovich's Festive Overture (in his own transcription), Carpenter improvised music for the film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). He watched the film from a monitor, and I rarely saw him look at the keys, except when he had to pull the stops to change the voice. On the surface, there wasn't anything unusual about his accompaniment - after all, organists have been rocking the Wurlitzer to silent films for close to 100 years - but this was playing on another level, revealing a deep and broad understanding of music, bolstered by an orchestra of electronic sounds that included glockenspiel, snare and bass drums, and cymbals. Eventually, we all just sat back and took it in.
Amazingly, this was only the first of Carpenter's performances last night: at midnight, he was scheduled to accompany The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) at the Middle Collegiate Church, where he is chief organist. All those CMJ bands playing multiple shows daily have nothing on this guy. (More pics below.)