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Cameron Carpenter: Organ superstar

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I got tickets for this concert on a bit of whim, and then had trouble finding anyone to go with; seems a busy time of year for work, travel, work travel, and other. But though I could have exchanged for another, I had ended up intrigued by this guy, Cameron Carpenter.

He looks like a rock star. He’s young, good-looking, fit, has a mohawk, dresses in sparkly / paisly tights pants and shirts, and wear outlandish, heeled shoes.

Cameron Carpenter

And he plays classical music. On the organ.

Naturally, he doesn’t approach it in a traditional way. Notably, he prefers digital organs to traditional pipe organs. And he improvises on the classics. And composes his own arrangements, and entire concertos.

Saturday night’s KW Symphony concert gave us a taste of what this guy can do. I went to the Prelude before the concert (which I don’t always bother with) because it was a conversation between Carpenter and a musicologist. He’s a really interesting guy, and I learned a lot about organ (not that I knew much to start with), including the fact that every organ in the world is different, And not subtly different—so different that the extremes might as well be different instruments. And since organists do not travel with their own instruments, they have to arrive early and get acquainted with the particularities of whatever they will be given to play in that town.

I also found out that, somewhat to my disappointment, that Carpenter was only playing on two of the numbers in the program.

The first half was all Bach. The first was a short piece, Ricercare No 2, arranged by Anton Webern. The third was the longer Suite No 3 in D major, whose second movement is very well-known (I think I play it on the piano), but which ends with lively movements with dance rhythms.

Those were both nice. But there’s no doubt they were overshadowed by the middle bit, of Cameron Carpenter riffing on Bach’s most famous composition, Toccata and Fugue in B minor. My sixth row center seats couldn’t have been better for watching hands, and my goodness, could those move. And did you know organists also have a keyboard for their feet? The whole thing was just mesmerizing.


(A taste from YouTube, though I think what he did Saturday was even better.)

In the second half, we jumped from the 1700s to current-day. First up was just the symphony on Arron Copland’s five-movement Music for the Theatre. This was a very fun, jazz-inspired composition, with humorous bits to it.

And then Cameron Carpenter presented his composition for organ and symphony, The Scandal. Based on what he’d done in the first half, I thought this would be all about the symphony adding colour around his own demonstration of proficiency, but it wasn’t that at all. It was a true integration of organ and symphony in a beautiful and lively piece of music. The cello got a big solo moment, and until maybe the last three minutes, the organ wasn’t necessarily the major focus. I was impressed.

So was the audience, as the standing ovation felt more sincere than it sometimes does. And in an extreme rarity at classical music concerts, we got encores! I don’t know what the first was (I’m not that good at classical music edition), but the second was a wonky but awesome version of Oh Canada! Not bad for an American who now lives in Germany.

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