Cameron Carpenter at The Music Center at Strathmore by Keith Tittermary

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When you think of an organ, the first thought that comes to mind is a big pipe organ buried somewhere in the loft of a church. An instrument that time forgot, perhaps. Well, fortunately for those lovers of this haunting instrument, 31 year-old Cameron Carpenter is on a mission to remind you that this beautiful instrument is just as important to music as any other.

Carpenter, the young virtuoso, who is the first organist to ever receive a Grammy Award nomination for best solo album (without orchestra), is a force to be reckoned with. Part musicologist, part rock star, Carpenter plays the organ with such ease that it makes you remember that this beast of an instrument has been around a lot longer than many other instruments.

Cameron Carpenter.
Cameron Carpenter.

In Friday evening’s concert at Strathmore, the vivacious (and glitter clad) Carpenter briefly started the concert with Bach’s Cello Suite #1 – Prelude, before being interrupted by an errant cell phone in the audience. He paused, entertained us with an impromptu rendition of the famous Nokia Cell Phone Suite, and then resumed his flawless delivery. The Bach piece, an etude for pedal, as he tells us, was almost entirely played by his feet, dancing around the lower keyboard like a dancer playing both the white and black swan: delicate, sensual, and fiery. Carpenter’s best skill as an organist lies not in his fingers, but in his feet. The organ pedals are traditionally just that – low bass pedal notes meant to give the majestic sound some deep tones, but Carpenter uses the pedals as its own instrument. He could very well be the long lost relative of the famous tap dancing Nicholas Brothers who traded in his tap shoes for organ shoes.

Carpenter’s instrument, his own Rodgers Touring Organ, travels with him, so he can play his own instrument, as opposed to having to adjust to the venue’s organ. This seemingly minor detail is very important to his success as a musician. As he worked his way through Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia, he literally pulled all the stops out. Carpenter navigates the stops so quickly that it seems as if he momentarily grows two extra arms as he quickly switches without missing a beat.

In the opening of the second portion, Carpenter delighted us with his own arrangement of Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, he made the delightful juxtaposition of playing the very sopranic “Glitter and Be Gay on the pedals, his forte.

He ended his concert by mesmerizing his listeners with three short improvisation pieces. As he tells us: “Improvisation is music that has never been heard before, nor will ever be heard again. It is not ‘made up.’

Throughout the breathless evening, he regaled us with brief quips of his passions (being a huge fan of Charles Ives), his thoughts on the revolution of the digital organ, and his sheer joy of being at one with his instrument. Carpenter is not an organist. He is a musician, he is a rock star, he is a music historian. But don’t call him an organist, because he transcends that title.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

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Cameron Carpenter played for one-night only on April 12. 2013 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future Strathmore events go to their website, or call the box office at (301) 581-5100.

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Cameron Carpenter’s website.