In the "organ world," that rarefied dwelling place of organists, organ builders, and lovers of organ music, "CC" used to refer to the master French organ builder, Aristide Cavaille-Coll, whose 19th-century instruments still produce justifiably-memorable sounds in so many French cathedrals. In our time, "CC" is more likely to refer to Cameron Carpenter, who brought his "International Touring Organ" (ITO) to Stewart Theater for a long-awaited NC State Live concert.
Before the recital, a standing-room-only crowd overflowed a lecture hall where CC spoke about his approach to the organ and to its music. In his long and erudite discourses, he spoke of coming from a non-musical family and to his having approached the organ from a different direction than most organists because, although the majority of organs have been linked with the Christian church at least since the Protestant Reformation, CC himself is an atheist. This dichotomy has helped his wide-open approach to the literature he plays, which encompasses not only classic organ music, but transcriptions of other Classical music genres, orchestral music, and popular music.
While CC has been widely acclaimed as a "insanely talented" virtuoso organist (he is) and as a showman (he is), he is also an intellectual, a brilliant arranger, a composer, and the organ world's most visible resident iconoclast. While he believes that the digital (i.e., pipe-less) organ is the instrument's naturally-evolving future, he is also, curiously enough, a throw-back in his programming, which includes much music which was not originally composed for the organ. Programs of organ recitals from the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th often contained more transcriptions than original organ music. The most famous Anglo-American organist of this period, Edwin H. Lemare, transcribed and performed numerous symphonic works, including many from Richard Wagner's operas. These transcriptions often required "thumbing down," a technique requiring the organist to play with four fingers of one hand on one keyboard while simultaneously playing a separate melody on the keyboard below, using the thumb of that same hand. CC uses this technique frequently, to great effect.
On stage were an array of front-lit speaker ensembles, three amplifier cabinets with LED's indicating their working status (looking a bit like squared-off R2-D2's or sights seen at a rave), and the five-manual organ console, its pedalboard extending five notes lower and five notes higher than the typical American pedalboard. Built to CC's specifications, this instrument incorporates tonal resources akin to combining a classic four-manual pipe organ and a three-manual theater organ.
Carpenter strode onstage, seated himself on the pedestal-style organ bench, and launched into the fortissimo strains of Wagner's Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Brass choirs blazed, string sections blended with solo woodwind lines, with registration changes coming as fast as required to make the organ sound like an orchestra. Again, this is not new; the "symphonic organ" was the goal of many 19th-century organ builders; Carpenter's own transcriptions, however, delve even farther into the orchestral scores, bringing out more melodic lines. New digital processes, whether in all-digital organs or when used as registration aids in pipe organs, have made it possible to program in myriad changes of registration which can be accessed sequentially just by tapping a button (called a toe stud) with a foot. This button got a real workout, the most-used of all the Marshall & Ogletree instrument's accessories, as CC's peripatetic right foot moved constantly from expression pedal to toe stud to pedalboard.
The program proceeded with a movement from J.S. Bach's D minor Trio Sonata (which he learned while at the N.C. School of the Arts), the "Tango Lament" by Astor Piazzolla, Bach's Prelude and Fugue in B minor, and Louis Vierne's Carillon du Westminster, the great French organist-composer's tribute to the four-note melody played by the bells in London's Palace of Westminster. The percussion resources of the ITO provided far more bell sonorities for CC's use than any usual set of organ chimes. Carpenter's verbal program notes ranged from historical references to topics such as fractals, illuminating what he calls his "obsession" with the organ and its possibilities.
The ITO has many superb sounds, its strings and woodwinds in particular. I was less happy with the reed sounds (trumpets, tubas), which all seemed to have an "in-your-face" edge on them, and with the pedal stops, which sounded, for lack of a better word, "tubby." Whether soft or loud, the pedal flue sounds seemed wider and more amorphous than the rest of the instruments digitally-sampled sounds.
After intermission, two more wonderful transcriptions: the 3rd movement, Allegro molto vivace from Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (CC called it the "Scherzo," which is its function), then the famous "Erlkönig" song by Franz Schubert, originally for voice and piano. CC described the action and his thoughts as he arranged the work, with its perpetual-motion figure being the fast-galloping horse, and different sonorities depicting the voices of the father, the young son, and the (Carpenter suggested it might be a poltergeist) Erlkönig.
The theater organ sounds were featured in a medley of songs by George Gershwin, followed by a major original composition for organ by Carpenter entitled "Music for an Imaginary Film." Full of ideas (each of which is presented, but not developed, according to the composer), this work shows Carpenter's promise as a serious composer. The program concluded with Bach's monumental Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Here, as in the B minor Prelude and Fugue played earlier, CC's interpretation is not meant to sound as it may have sounded in Bach's time; indeed, Bach could not have imagined CC's interpretations simply because the technology to create them did not exist in the 18th century. Carpenter delved deep into the music's structure, choosing to illuminate this or that hue in Bach's compositional palette. Bachian or not, these interpretations are musical to their core. They are the products of an inquiring and facile mind, in the hands and feet of a performer of unlimited talent.
Oh, and the encore? While the audience would have loved more, there was only one: John Philip Sousa's most famous march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" ….. with the piccolo part played by CC's flamboyant feet on the ITO's pedalboard.
Thanks to NC State University for an evening of fascinating talk and out-of-this-world playing by this artist whose cultivated persona can mask but not hide the depth of his musicianship and his dedication to his art and his instrument.