Organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter believes his profession needs a major makeover. “The organ world is basically 20 years behind the rest of classical music,” says Carpenter. “Now that’s saying something.”
Carpenter, who performs Sunday afternoon at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, has made it his life’s mission to change perceptions about the king of instruments. He’s certainly not your grandmother’s idea of a church organist.
He’s unusually fashion-conscious for an organist and has been known to spend hours applying sparkling sequins to his costumes.
“Performers who ignore their appearance do so at great peril,” says Carpenter. “Most organists are the kinds of people you don’t necessarily want to watch for an hour or more.”
Not surprisingly, Carpenter’s heterodoxy extends to his repertoire. He can play a Bach toccata and fugue with the best of them. But in concert he’s more likely to play one of his wild organ transcriptions of piano and orchestra works than standard fare.
One of his signature pieces is his arrangement of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, a diabolically difficult transcription that assigns the piano’s rapid-fire left-hand runs to the organ’s foot pedals. Talk about an aerobic workout.
One can only hope that he plays some of this music during his Schermerhorn recital on Sunday. Exactly what he plans to play is unknown, since Carpenter does not announce his programs in advance.
“I like to decide my programs spontaneously, usually a day before a concert,” Carpenter says. “I suspect I’ll play some Bach. And since the concert is in Nashville, I’ll probably play some transcriptions of string music as well.”
Born in 1981, Carpenter grew up in rural Pennsylvania, an area known more for its deer hunting than organ playing. He became fascinated with the organ at age 4, after he saw a picture of one in an encyclopedia.
“The picture I saw was of an old cinema organ, not a church organ, so I’ve always thought of the organ as a secular instrument,” says Carpenter. “Unfortunately for the organ, it has mostly been the handmaiden of the liturgy.”
From the beginning, Carpenter’s mother, Lynn, an artist, sensed that her son was different. So she decided on home schooling him until he turned 11. Then he entered the famed American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J.
Later, Carpenter attended the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., where contrary to his nature he briefly served as a church organist. His preference for secular music surfaced in his transcriptions. A prodigious talent, he transcribed Mahler’s entire Fifth Symphony when he was just 16.
Carpenter went on to New York City’s Juilliard School, where he eventually earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. One of his teachers there was the renowned Bach player Paul Jacobs. Asked about his time studying with this famed teacher, Carpenter declined comment.
“We don’t have the same approach to the organ,” says Carpenter, who was uttering perhaps his biggest understatement of the day.
A paragon of tradition, Jacobs is an outspoken advocate of the pipe organ. Carpenter, on the other hand, considers himself to be an outspoken advocate of organists. “I’m much more interested in the organist than in the organ,” says Carpenter. “Nobody goes to a Joshua Bell concert to hear his violin. They go to hear Joshua Bell. Sadly, people often go to an organ concert to hear such-and-such organ at such-and-such church. That’s ridiculous.”
Actually, people go to a Joshua Bell recital to hear both the violinist and his violin. Carpenter believes organists should have their own instruments as well, so he is currently designing a new touring organ, a portable instrument he can take with him on the road.
“There’s no question but that you play your best on your own instrument,” says Carpenter. “You know your own instrument, so it becomes your own voice.”
IF YOU GO
Organist Cameron Carpenter plays at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $55. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.