Organist Cameron Carpenter brings flamboyant style to Mondavi

By From page A11 | March 27, 2014

Cameron CarpenterW

Cameron Carpenter will perform Wednesday, April 2, at the Mondavi Center. Courtesy photo

Check it out

Who: Organist Cameron Carpenter

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 2

Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $47 general, $29 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787

Organist Cameron Carpenter — who visits the Mondavi Center for a solo concert at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 2 — aims to shake things up with the musical material he picks (and the way he plays it), his unconventional looks and the instrument he plays.

During a recent phone interview, when invited to describe how he’d like to be introduced to Davis Enterprise readers, Carpenter ventured, “I guess I would say ‘the revolutionary secular voice of the organ.’ The organ is for me a kind of voice. A personal voice, not a voice characterized by any religion or institution — even the institution of the organ itself. The digital organ is my love and concentration.”

One of the ways that Carpenter sets himself apart: “You don’t simply want to be spending your life playing only organ music. … For almost every single organist in the world, the focus of their work is music written for the organ, whereas my concentration is expanding our idea of what can be played on the organ. My belief is that the digital organ is the greatest iteration of the instrument that can exist.”

So when Carpenter plays J.S. Bach, he doesn’t stick with the composer’s famous organ works. Rather, you’ll often hear Carpenter play his organ arrangements of violin partitas or solo cello suites — layering in a dazzling array of musical colors, which drives some violinists and cellists crazy, but that doesn’t seem to bother Carpenter at all.

“Bach is the domain of most inveterate purist organ concepts,” Carpenter declared. “One way of breaking free of that has been to work with some of Bach’s violin music, and his string music generally.”

Carpenter has recorded the Bach organ works but is less interested in them these days, saying they “are better interpreted by someone who believes in God, and has an understanding of liturgy.”

Critic Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times summed up one of Carpenter’s concerts in 2012 by saying, “He is a throwback to a long-ago era, when the skill of the performer was judged by transformation rather than fidelity. … In his interpretations and arrangements, Carpenter shows consummate sensitivity to a work’s and composer’s style and character, but a way of achieving his ends that is all his own. Following along with the score during one of his recitals will get you nowhere, but you will hear sides of the music you had never before considered.”

Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times said, “Carpenter is one of the rare musicians who changes the game of his instrument. … He is a smasher of cultural and classical music taboos. He is technically the most accomplished organist I have ever witnessed … and, most important of all, the most musical.”

And then there’s Carpenter’s ever-changing look. He’s done all sorts of different things with his hair, he’s worn all manner of outfits onstage, he designed a special pair of organ shoes for himself, which glitter in the stage lights (unlike the dark black shoes most other organists wear). His website has a section devoted to “glamour.”

“There is a certain pretension that classical musicians need to look a certain way, a conservatism that prevails,” Carpenter said. “I think it’s very important for me to be honest on stage, as one should always be honest with an audience, and be who I am. … (This is) one of the reasons my personal taste in fashion is important as part of the performance itself.”

Carpenter also has a new recording contract with Sony, and the first album will come out in late April, titled “If You Could Read My Mind” — and yes, the album includes a cover version of the Gordon Lightfoot tune of that title, which was popular in the ’70s. The album also includes versions of songs associated with country singer Patsy Cline and folksinger Leonard Cohen, a pop song written by Burt Bacharach, a tango by Astor Piazzolla, as well as an arrangement of music from a Bach cello suite, and adaptions of works by Dupre and Rachmaninoff.

“I’m a little bit like a sax player who plays an instrument that sits as an outsider to many genres — a late-comer, which is what the digital organ is,” Carpenter said, adding, “But like a sax player, I can ask myself ‘Now what do I want to play?’ ”

But just because Carpenter has a new album coming out doesn’t necessarily mean he will be playing cuts from that album at Mondavi. He picks his material on the spot, based in part on the instrument he’s playing — and at Mondavi, he’ll be playing a rented Rodgers organ brought in for the evening. There is no printed program in the Mondavi Center playbill.

“I always announce my program from the stage,” Carpenter said. “It may end up being a program with a lot of Bach,” he added.

Tickets start at $47 general, $29 for students, and are available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.



Jeff Hudson

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