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CarpentercropOrganist Cameron Carpenter will perform at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland on 12 April 2013. His concerts are different, drawing on classics by Bach and Chopin but also featuring his own passionate arrangements and compositions. “I’ll be playing a wide variety of music, all of which is infused with ecstatic [feeling],” he says. “It’s a very personal ecstatic music.”

The musician is known for pushing the limits of the instrument. “I’ve studied all of the classical repertoire as one would expect, but I’ve also incorporated a revolutionary departure. I’ve mastered my own style, and I’m also composing.”

Critics have described the controversial Carpenter as “flamboyant,” “an exorbitant virtuoso,” “an ambitious radical,” “a game changer” and “a smasher of cultural and classical music taboos.”

Wayne Wold, who heads the music department at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland said he has seen and heard Carpenter perform twice. “He truly has a phenomenal technique at what he can play, and he’s a real showman,” Wold said. “He always causes some folks to take sides in saying he’s not doing an authentic performance because he’s very showy, but he’s doing great things to bring more attention to the organ and the organ word.”

Carpenter was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Solo Instrumental Performance category for his 2008 Revolutionary album, which took its title from his interpretation of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, but he also draws on orchestral pieces, movie music and songs like Duke Ellington’s Solitude and Paul McCartney’s Yesterday.

At Strathmore, Carpenter will perform on a Rodgers 361 digital organ, an electronic instrument that he believes is every bit as good as, if not better than, the traditional pneumatic organ with its ranks of pipes reaching to the ceiling.

One reason Carpenter advocates for digital organs is because they make it easier for musicians like himself to pursue a career. “They’re not the best for an organist’s commercial future,” he said about the traditional pipe organ, which isn’t portable and which requires traveling musicians to adapt to whatever is available with little get-acquainted time. “Every pipe organ is different, there’s no consistency,” he said. “You have to start from the ground up, with only five or six hours of familiarity.”

Carpenter acknowledges that when digital organs first emerged in the 1970s, they deserved the criticism they got for being “cheap imitations” of pipe organs, but he said the technology has improved and that he plans to unveil one of his own design in 2014.

Carpenter was four years old growing up in rural Pennsylvania when he saw a photo of someone playing the organ in an encyclopedia from the 1920s, when musicians used organ to accompany silent films. “It was incredibly glamorous looking,” he said. “Something was really happening [in the photo]. It ruined me for anything else,” said Carpenter, who learned over time to play the organ keyboards with his hands and the pedal board with his feet, a sound that can equal the sound of a full orchestra.

After studying music in high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, he moved on to Juilliard in New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in 2006. That year he also began traveling to perform in cities such as San Francisco, London, Berlin, Leipzig and Moscow.

Although he plays some of the classic organ music originally written for churches, Carpenter said the multi-faceted instrument need not be limited to religious music. “I’m bringing a perspective to the organ that is God-free,” he said. “What many people hear in church is a handmaiden to religious practice.

I want to free the organ,” he said. “The music can be violent, it can have profundity, color and wit and sensuality.”

Deliberately and creatively unconventional, Carpenter hopes his performances will encourage audiences to rethink what they know about the organ. “By shattering the stereotypes, we can look at the organ and at each other in new and very interesting ways,” he said.

Virginia Terhune – The Gazette