IN: Reviews

Best of Times and Worst of Times


The force of nature that is Cameron Carpenter was brightly in evidence at the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Shed Friday night, as was, of course, the BSO, this particular evening under the direction of the esteemed Frenchman Stéphane Denève. Not everything went well—dommage—but much did.

Denève began the concert with one of his now familiar and charming spoken introductions. After he had mounted the podium and Carpenter had alighted on the bench of his impressive Marshall & Ogletree International (Electronic) Touring Organ, the conductor turned and asked the audience why indeed they might be puzzled that Carpenter was onstage before the program book had called for his participation. Denève explained that there were reasons for programming Barber’s eloquent Adagio for Strings—which ends ppp niente—right up against, as it were—the thunderous fff opening organ chords of Francis Poulenc’s estimable Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani. The reasons, said Denève, were that Poulenc and Barber, having first met each other in 1946, were good friends, each thought highly of the other’s work, and the Adagio and the Concerto were both premiered within days of each other in 1938. These being the case, Denève and Carpenter agreed that there ought to be only the slightest pause between the two works.

This idea was probably lofty, and perhaps even high-minded. But the reality was just plain rude. After what was perhaps the most exquisitely played Adagio I have ever had the good fortune to hear (what luxury to hear the BSO strings so sensitively directed by Denève) the mood was simply shattered by the nightmare fortissimo sound of that electronic glare under the hands and feet of Carpenter; it was just plain ugly, bass-heavy, and, in a word, ineloquent. After this inauspicious beginning, I held out little hope for a pleasing performance of what is my favorite 20th-century organ concerto. Unfortunately, my doubts were not assuaged. No matter what subtleties Denève coaxed from the BSO strings, no matter what their finely shaded tones and colors, no matter what nuances Daniel Bauch brought to his tympani strokes, no matter what the Poulenc-composed beauties might have been, they were only evident when Carpenter wasn’t playing. When Carpenter wasn’t too loud, he distractingly added gratuitous swells in the middle of each soft phrase. He regularly employed a detaché style to his solos when a more Gallic legato would have been preferable. When a soft phrase was repeated, he insisted on gimmicky variations of registrations to such a point that this wonderful music became a cartoon, a caricature, a Roz Chast parse on a Renoir. (I love Roz Chast by the way, and she has a major show up at the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum. No testy comments, please…)

Blessedly, matters significantly improved in the second half, and after the second half, wonderful and entertaining things occurred in a solo mini-recital that. Carpenter played for those who remained. But I’m ahead of the evening’s order.

It took me much of the intermission to calm down, but I finally did, and readied myself for that BSO specialty, the Saint-Saënssss (those who attended the concert will understand my multiple esses) Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37 with its famous part written for organ. What would Carpenter do—um—bring—to this wonderful work?

I’m happy to report that he brought judicious musicianship and appropriate playing throughout. This was a good performance of a favorite work, delicate and fleet, robust and triumphant, fabulously played by the BSO, and eloquently conducted by Maestro Denève. It was clear that Denève had polished and shined this gem. The luster of the playing was brilliant, with memorable shading of dynamics and rich, fulsome tone from the BSO strings. The slow movement greatly benefitted, with its long, graceful string lines unspooling darkly and richly, and when indicated, with clean and elegant filigree, like the finest French lace. This movement harbors a particularly long delayed cadence near its end – always a delicious tease. This particular evening it was particularly, wonderfully planned and played. Maestro Denève knows this music well, and we were fortunate to be in his thrall.

The scherzo skipped and skittered joyfully at a perfect tempo, with its wonderful piano licks seemingly effortlessly tossed off brilliantly by BSO pianist Vytas Baksys.

What most in the audience were waiting for, though, was the thunderous final movement, which, like the Poulenc, begins with a thrillingly robust chord from the organ. What happened? Why, it sounded GOOD—not nearly as coarse and ugly as the Poulenc’s initial fortissimo, but balanced and appropriate.

I began to see what could have been a rationalization. The Poulenc is a concerto, the Saint-Saëns a symphony. Could it be that Carpenter felt he had more license in the former because of its title, and did he perhaps feel that he needed to be more part of the whole in the symphony because, by definition, in THAT piece he was expected to be merely one of the many the musicians on stage, albeit with some pretty impressive solos?

The symphony ended in its wonderful blaze of glorious C-major, with full organ permeating the texture and Bauch’s thundering tympani strokes bringing it all triumphantly home. Rapturous audience reaction ensued. Was it the best Saint-Saëns Third ever? No. But it was likely the only the only successful Saint-Saëns Third performed at Tanglewood, because the resident real pipe organ still in use there is simply not up to the task. So, by default, Carpenter and his touring M&O won the Saint-Saëns evening. I’ll give him that.

Now the REAL fun began. Shortly after the orchestra had left the stage, out came Carpenter, newly shod in bejeweled, heeled organ shoes, and off he went at the spaceship-like M&O console with a scintillating theatre-organ colored transcription (with bass-drum, cymbals, and even tam-tam!) of George Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band. It was terrific! He next played the J.S. Bach: Toccata in F Major, BWV 540 with its famous and daunting organ pedal solos. His showy interpretation and registrations owed a fair amount to the late Virgil Fox, but by now we were ready for that. It was becoming clear that Carpenter, like Virgil, knows no technical challenges.

It’s indicative of Cameron’s inquiring mind that he chose as his next showstopper a transposition of transcription of a transcription. The music started out as J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E Major from the Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin, BWV 1006. Sergei Rachmaninoff liked it so much that he transcribed it for piano to play on his recitals, adding many Rachmaninoff-isms in the process. Carpenter likes the Rachmaninoff transcription so much that he adapted it to solo organ, not surprisingly adding some Carpenter-isms. He mentioned that he had transposed the music to a different key more suitable for organ. The outcome was refreshingly original and perky-sounding, true to the joy Bach had clearly intended, and yet also true to the virtuosity and added chromaticisms of the Rachmaninoff. In all, very nicely done.

Stephane Deneve and Cameron Carpenter (Hilary-Scott)
Stephane Deneve and Cameron Carpenter (Hilary Scott photo)

Carpenter then eloquently introduced (he is very well-spoken) what he described as “…when ELECTRICITY was introduced to the organ.” This turned out to be a vibrato-laden theatre-organ toned homage to Henry Mancini’s Moon River, played as Mancini would never have imagined, but was fascinating, nonetheless. Carpenter showed us all that he is a true colorist with an impressionist’s painterly palette of pointillism and portraiture.

As he began to describe his next transcription, it became clear that he was about to launch into Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger with its delightful, tightly woven tapestry of motives combined at the end of the piece. Carpenter was up to the contrapuntal task. It almost unseated my favorite solo take on this masterpiece, Glenn Gould’s masterful (and admittedly overdubbed) version for piano, which still thrills me every time I cue it up, for its clarity, wit, and virtuoso panache. But Carpenter was (presumably) not overdubbed, and an impressive feat it was to behold.

The Wagner was to be the finale, but the audience demanded more, and received a Carpenter encore specialty: Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. It, too, boggled the mind and ear, with Mr. Carpenter registering his instrument so that he could play the famous piccolo solo the first time it arrives with his feet (!)—cheeky, funny and amazing. The second time the piccolo solo came around, Carpenter played it with his right hand, as his left hand and feet were otherwise completely engaged with the accompanying counterpoint. Bravo!

The 1,000 or so who stayed for the recital heard Carpenter tell of how honored he was to be playing at Tanglewood on his touring organ, which he explained had been built a few dozen miles due east in Needham.

What a night in the Berkshires! It’s probably safe to say that nothing like it had happened in the Shed before. For all its considerable ups and downs, fun was had, music was made, and memories were surely assured.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 40 years.

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