The only costume change a very all-business Cameron Carpenter allowed himself last night at Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts in Danville was the between-set exchange of a long sleeve shirt covered in fashionable graffiti for a black t-shirt with the Centre logo embossed in glitter.
“I’ll be sure to wear this next week when I give a master class at Harvard.” Such was one of the pokerfaced quips the Julliard-educated, Grammy nominated artist peppered a two hour display of his remarkable international touring organ with.
While humor played a modest role in the performance, Carpenter’s plan of action was implementing a largely classical repertoire to showcase a self-designed instrument that was essentially a digital hybrid of a traditional pipe organ and the comparatively contemporary theater organ.
The instrument, along with several massive banks of speakers (including one augmented with large, horn-shaped resonators) cut imposing figures onstage and created rich waves of sound, especially on organ pieces like Bach’s Toccata in F Major, that circulated to fill every corner within the Norton Center’s Newlin Hall.
But as distinctive as the gadgetry was, it was Carpenter’s technical command and sense of playfulness that made the program so engaging. The show opening treatment of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and the second set-closer, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, were performed with scholarly cool, despite the compositional storm the latter brewed into, that made the music seem more inviting than imposing.
The more playfully devilish side of Carpenter’s performance profile emerged during Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture. Here, the Wurlitzer half of the international touring organ presented itself with an accent resembling a calliope. Together with Carpenter’s exact but highly animated phrasing, the piece took on an almost cartoon-like quality.
The program happily strayed from classical works, as well. A second set medley of George Gershwin tunes was designed, according to the mohawked organist, to “let my inner nerd run free, not that it hasn’t already.” But the performance turned decidedly summery for an encore of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse chestnut Pure Imagination that briefly brought to mind the subtle, lyrical playing of an altogether different organ pioneer, Booker T. Jones.
All that and a Centre shirt, too – kind of makes you wonder if Harvard will be hip enough to handle it all next week.