Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Cameron Carpenter’s explosive approach to the organ

Making waves in the normally tranquil world of classical music

SHOWMAN. Mixing contemporary songs into classical improvisations — even playing with his feet — is part of Cameron Carpenter's electrifying concerts. Credit: Adrian Buckmaster

I have seen the new Liberace and he is Cameron Carpenter. Haven’t heard of him? Well, no great surprise unless you find yourself rocking out to Bach’s greatest hits as played by your local church organist. But this dandified organ specialist is making waves in the normally tranquil world of classical music. Carpenter’s electrifying one-man organ extravaganza arrives for the Stratford Summer Music series in Stratford for his Canadian debut with a mystery program that the musician chooses shortly before the curtain rises.

“It’s been announced that I’m playing an all-Bach program, but I’m sure your readers would have a hard time discerning one composer from the other,” says Carpenter. “People come to see me as a performer, not the music, though most wouldn’t admit it.”

Okay, so he’s about as far from modesty as Karen Carpenter was from a sandwich (too soon?), but this Carpenter has talent to back up his prodigious ego.

To start with he replaces the customary left hand in Chopin’s brutally demanding Revolution Étude with something almost unimaginable — his feet. It’s a breathtaking sight: Carpenter in white sequined T-shirt and matching shiny pants, feet dancing with unerring precision and incredible speed across the organ’s foot pedals. His energy and vivacity infuse Chopin’s already exhilarating piece into something almost bacchanal, and audiences go insane for this display of virtuosity and athleticism. His 2008 CD Revolutionary was nominated for a Grammy for best solo instrumental performance — unprecedented for an organist.

Carpenter cites his early study of ballet and modern dance as inspiration for this demanding and unexpected performance style, and feels it complements his approach to an instrument often viewed as somewhat staid and ecclesiastical.

“Going to Julliard for six years and two degrees exasperated me — and anyone who has a brain — with the stereotype of the quiet, moderately talented accompanist,” he says. “I’ve always had a very physical approach to the organ.

“It’s a paradox to me that, despite the fact that the organ is this overtly physical thing to the layman, I find organists in general are the last people to appreciate this. You don’t have to look carefully at the stereotypes of organists to see there’s a great deal of inhibition that runs deep. Their expression is really quite limited.”

With a wardrobe that would make Elton John drool and dancing feet that work harder than Astaire ever imagined, Carpenter is anything but a stereotype of some old Mrs Whatsit who plays at weddings and funerals. (The musician identifies as queer: “While my first love was a boy and I’ve had numerous male lovers,” he told the Advocate, “I also love women.”) Certainly his repertoire is worlds ahead of yet another dry rendition of “Ave Maria.”

“I definitely play around with source material,” Carpenter says, admitting to sneaking in more contemporary bits during improvisations on the classics. “It’s very frequent that I will improvise on popular tunes by Bob Dylan and other people like that. I find that an interesting meeting of milieus.”

Is there any clue of what audiences can expect from Stratford run? “Even if I had decided the program, I wouldn’t discuss it with you,” says Carpenter. “Every pipe organ is different, so until I see the organ I really don’t know.”

Carpenter explains that the mood of the room is also important when making the final decision on what the people will hear that evening.

“I try to meet my audience as they come. It’s important to understand the people you play for.”

Carpenter continues his three-night Stratford run with Carpenter’s Choices, an evening of personal favourites, on Jul 31 and Fireworks on Aug 1.