Cameron Carpenter reinvents the organ

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

Cameron Carpenter's love affair with the organ began visually as a child when he happened upon a photograph of one used to accompany silent films. Behind it was a screen depicting a broad vista. The view represented a challenge to him, a vast new world to explore.

Hailed by critics as an "avant-garde organist" and "classical music renegade," Carpenter makes his Washington debut Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore with a sampling of his extraordinary repertoire encompassing Bach, jazz, pops and his own compositions. The title of his first album, the Grammy-nominated "Revolutionary," explains his mission. The stage is set for an evening of musical adventure and fun when he steps from the wings wearing one of the many extravagant outfits he designs.

"I never know in advance what my program will be," he said. "The choice begins with dreamlike ideas of what I would like it to be and how I can make an emotional impact on the audience. I've played throughout the world, in such places as [Walt Disney Concert Hall] in Los Angeles, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Tchaikovsky [Concert] Hall in Moscow and Royal Albert Hall in London, and each time I have to figure out what the instrument does after I show up. All organs are different, so every concert is a very personal experience that is never repeated twice.

Onstage
Cameron Carpenter
» Where: Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda
» When: 8 p.m. Friday
» Info: $25 to $40; 301-581-5100; strathmore.org

"For the last 50 years, organists have ignored their audiences. Ever since WWII, it's been more about playing for other organists. Either you choose to sit in church or you set about changing the infrastructure of the organ. At my concerts, audiences witness something fresh and new. My goal for 2014 is to complete the renovation of the organ as we know it. Until now, we have been thwarted by stereotypes and traditionalism."

The native of Meadville, Pa., was home-schooled in a "profoundly secular household" of an inventor father and sculptor mother, neither of them musical. That did not deter him from studying piano and becoming a keyboard prodigy. Following studies at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., and the North Carolina School of Arts, he entered the Juilliard School with one goal in mind: to graduate.

Throughout his training there, he composed art songs, a symphonic poem for orchestra, works for solo organ, and intriguing arrangements of piano works by Chopin, Ives, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and many other composers. Upon receiving his master's degree from Juilliard in 2006, he set forth on worldwide organ concert tours.

The success of "Revolutionary," the only album by a solo organist ever nominated for a Grammy, was followed by "Cameron Live!" The full-length DVD and CD introduces his original approach to the instrument guaranteed to bedazzle both listeners and the live audiences who gasp at his fancy footwork. His photo on the cover bubbles over with a sense of humor.

"My personal trademark is to not announce my programs so the audience won't arrive with prejudgment about a particular piece," he said. "Because at present, I have no way of analyzing in advance the organ I will perform on, it can be a blood-curdling thrill to discover the instrument at hand. That problem will soon disappear.

"I've been working to create and finance a digital pipe organ, a personal organ I can tour with. Just as a violinist lives with a special instrument, I want an instrument I can carry with me wherever I play so I can have some intimacy with audiences. Now we have the technology to maintain such an instrument.

"This is the consummation of a fantasy, the organ all organists want for their own. It will be very large and will be transported in a truck like a road show. I'm the only organist with the commercial and promotional structure to do this on an international basis."

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Emily Cary

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner