BONN, Germany (Reuters) - Flamboyant American organist Cameron Carpenter wants to wrest organ music from academics he says play solely for the initiated, and bring it back to the people.
Wearing a floral print shirt for the first half of his concert, and a spangled white T-shirt emblazoned with the motto “Love Everything” for the second, Carpenter, 32, set the annual Beethoven Festival in Bonn ablaze this past weekend.
His adaptations of the overture to Bernstein’s “Candide”, the scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony “Pathetique” and a version of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” which he plays with his feet - his spangle-heeled black pumps scurrying over the organ’s foot pedals like a marionette on speed - had the audience cheering.
The musician also improvised on themes from three Beethoven symphonies and the piano piece “Fur Elise” for the recital in the composer’s birth city.
“The organ is actually the ultimate example of a public instrument ...it can play to the greatest number of people at the lowest cost,” Carpenter told Reuters during the interval.
His performances, including such crowd-pleasers as playing entire passages on foot pedals, or adapting the American standard “Stars and Stripes Forever” for the organ, are sometimes criticized as “showmanship”.
But his admirers laud him as the Liszt or Paganini of the 21st century.
Carpenter hopes his unorthodox approach to music, and a dress sense many would describe as daring, may convince young people to see the world of music as sexually inclusive.
“It seems to me we have to be prepared to go the distance for art and it’s no joke,” he said.
“I do take it seriously, especially in the United States. Certainly, I grew up on a little farm in the middle of nowhere and would have appreciated a role model. Who’s to say that there isn’t some queer organist in Kansas who’s getting a little encouragement?”
Carpenter, who was trained by Paul Jacobs, the head of the organ department at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, thinks the organ for too long has been held hostage by what he calls “imitation academics” who put on performances that only other organ-lovers could enjoy.
“It is the absolute aspect of musical socialism” - the appeal of the instrument to the masses - “which is thrown to the wind in the playing of many organists,” he said. “It’s left to people like me to rebuild this.”
Carpenter is putting his money where his mouth is - some $500,000 which he says he has invested in building a digital electronic “International Touring Organ” which will make its debut at Lincoln Center in New York next March.
The super-organ, unlike the fixed-pipe organs installed in concert halls and churches, will overcome what Carpenter sees as a major impediment to greater popularity of organ music - that each fixed organ is a unique instrument and there is no standardization, as there is for the piano.
“It is impossible to recognize or create an international standard of performance, as exists for the piano,” he said. “With the digital organ, we are witnessing the infancy of that.”
But even a digital organ, with all its slick switches and electronic assists, cannot change the fact that Carpenter’s performances of “The Minute Waltz” or his footwork-driven version of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” are physical affairs, for which he employs a personal trainer to stay in top shape.
“For me playing the organ is a very physical event that I‘m very aware is something which is of a certain period of time of my life,” he said. “I probably won’t be able to play the ‘Revolutionary Etude’ like that when I‘m 50.”
A lot of people watching and hearing Carpenter can’t believe he can do it now.
Editing by Mike Collett-White