Cameron Carpenter: If You Could Read My Mind (CD and DVD review)

Cameron Carpenter, International Touring Organ. Sony 88883796882 (CD and DVD).

Make no mistake: American organist Cameron Carpenter has enormous talent. Earning a bachelor's and master's degree from The Juilliard School in New York, he studied with organists Gerre Hancock, Paul Jacobs, and John Weaver. There appears nothing Carpenter can't play and play well. Nevertheless, he apparently decided early on that to become a superstar in the world of organists, you had to do something more than merely play the organ well. And so he adopted a punk-rock persona, cultivated a flamboyant style, and helped design an International Touring Organ to his own specifications. The work has paid off: He's now a superstar. At least, he's a superstar among the general public, where his concerts regularly sell out and his CD's fly off the shelves. Whether he can satisfy the organ purist, however, remains open to question, and whether he will be able to maintain a lasting popularity beyond his current glamor stage we will have to wait and see. For the moment, he is definitely a sensation.

Of course, this isn't the first time a musician has purposely set out to create something new and different in the world of classics by promoting a cult of personality: Chopin, Liszt, Paganini, even Mozart had their critics who claimed their music making was more about themselves than about the music they were playing. More specifically, in the late twentieth century, organists Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs were the biggest names in the business, with Fox insisting that performers needed to take the organ out of the musty depths of church cathedrals and into the imagination of the masses, while Biggs argued that organists had an obligation to play the organ as composers for the instrument intended it be played. Fox disparaged Biggs's clinging to historical accuracy, saying Biggs and his followers were "relegating the organ to a museum piece." Both organists were enormously popular, so I suppose there's room for all tastes in the classical field.

Certainly, one needs an open musical taste to appreciate Cameron Carpenter. But heard on a CD, divorced from the man's physical appearance, one can readily hear his musical gifts and perhaps better enjoy his innovative musical style. On the present album, Cameron plays the music of over half a dozen classical and pop composers, including a composition of his own, mostly in his own arrangements and all of it played on an organ created especially for him, a digital instrument that incorporates the sounds of many of Carpenter's favorite organs and that enables him to reproduce what every organist dreams of: a symphony orchestra at his fingertips. He makes some impressive sounds.

Anyway, Cameron opens the program somewhat conventionally with his own arrangement of J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. The music becomes more elaborate as it goes along, and Cameron's way with it is, indeed, fun to hear. If I have any reservation it's that further along in the piece Cameron's instrument tends slightly to overwhelm the music compared to the unaccompanied cello for which Bach originally intended it.

Next, we have the most flamboyant music on the disc, Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide. Here, Cameron pulls out all the stops, so to speak, allowing himself full rein of the multitude of sounds his specialized Touring Organ can make. Again, though, I found myself with one minor concern: If you listen to Bernstein's own rendition of the work, you may find that even in his older years he actually put more energy and high spirits into the music (check YouTube) than Cameron does. That doesn't mean I found anything inherently wrong with Cameron's version, only that Cameron may be more musically sedate and respectful than you might expect from his appearance.

And so it goes: We get Cameron's realizations of Sergei Rachmaninov's Vocalise, Astor Piazzola's "Oblivion," Marcel Dupre's Variations sur un Noel pour grand orgue, Aleksandr Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp major, Bach's Organ Sonata No. 6 in G major, an original piece by Carpenter called Music for an Imaginary Film, and five popular-song paraphrases. Like the rest of the program, they are equally playful, amusing, serious, and enjoyable as the case may be.

Favorites? I loved the simple beauty of Rachmaninov's Vocalise and Carpenter's delicate manner of handling it. I took delight in Cameron's own Music for an Imaginary Film because, as he says, it gets the most out of the Touring Organ's "cornucopia of color." I found myself fascinated by Piazzolla's soft tango rhythms. There is exquisite beauty as well as excitement in Dupre's and Scriabin's work. And it's hard not to enjoy Bach in any form.

The pieces I liked least were Carpenter's organ transcriptions of songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Burt Bacharach, Leonard Cohen, Bob Montgomery, and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. I mean, do we really need "Back in Baby's Arms" played on a huge electronic organ? If you'll forgive an admittedly unfair comparison, it reminded me of a skating rink.

So, will Carpenter's music making wear well in the long run, or will people eventually tire of his personal eccentricities? Ask me in another ten years.

In addition to the CD of music, the case contains a forty-three minute DVD of video, with six tracks devoted to Mr. Cameron playing various short pieces, plus an introduction to the performer and a segment on the building of the International Touring Organ. A light-cardboard slipcover completes the package.

Producer Philipp Nedel and engineer Martin Kistner recorded the CD music at Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts in November-December 2013. Producer Uwe Dierks and director Thomas Grube made the DVD. On the CD the organ sounds moderately distant, with a good deal of hall resonance involved. I suppose this spacious atmosphere helps emulate the live experience, but it means that a degree of detail gets lost amid the room reflections. Fortunately, a good, solid deep bass enhances the experience, as do strong dynamics and a healthy stereo spread.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa