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Music Review

Carpenter dazzles with innovative touring organ at Sanders

photos by Sean Proctor/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE — For the professional organist, a relationship with the king of instruments tends to fall into one of two categories: the longtime monogamy of a church assignment, or the touring soloist’s string of one-night stands, each bringing novelty and, presumably, some amount of initial fumbling.

Cameron Carpenter, presented in his local recital debut by Celebrity Series of Boston at Sanders Theatre on Thursday evening, wanted to have it both ways. A zealous missionary, Carpenter longed to share his passion with listeners around the world. At the same time, he craved an instrument with which he could form an intimate bond, he told the audience at Sanders.


Thanks to Marshall & Ogeltree, a Needham firm that incorporates digital sampling and data storage into organ design and renovation, he has seen that fantasy become reality. The International Touring Organ that the firm built for Carpenter is a portable behemoth: a jumbo jet’s control panel tucked into a sleek, black coffin, perched on a pedestal with footboard and bench, surrounded with a phalanx of illuminated loudspeakers, four of them with octagonal copper horns protruding.

The instrument is stuffed with sounds from Carpenter’s favorite organs: stops that emulate a church organ’s creamy clarinet, robust trombone, piercing trumpet and nasal oboe, as well as a theater organ’s rumbling bass drum and clattering cymbals. As heard on his new album, “If You Could Read My Mind,” the organ sounds colorful, responsive, and unusually versatile.

In concert, where an overhead video screen afforded prime views of Carpenter’s prodigious technique on the five-manual console, his extensive thumbwork, and his bedazzled boot heels prancing nimbly across the pedals, the instrument is impressive, if not wholly convincing to anyone who has spent time in a real pipe organ’s domain. In situ, such an instrument doesn’t just shake the rafters, but essentially merges with atmosphere and architecture: a palpable presence.


Still, Carpenter’s organ satifies more than any electric simulacrum I’d heard previously, and the intimacy that he claims with its workings yields benefits for the listener. His Bach — here, the Toccata and Fugue in A minor, Trio Sonata in E-flat, and Toccata in F (performed in F-sharp for reasons undivulged) — was notable for its clarity, precision, and purposefulness. His rendition of Marcel Duprè’s “Variations sur un Noël” was by turns chaste and macabre, ghostly and grand.

“Music for an Imaginary Film,” a Carpenter original, impressed more with its vivid cinematography than its jump-cut pacing. Carpenter’s taste for constant registration shifts could distract in Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” and Bernstein’s “Candide” overture. But there was no faulting his ability to shape a melody: a knack that also served in a Gershwin medley, where “S’Wonderful,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and more bubbled up in silken sequence.

Time and again as Carpenter spoke to the audience, he referred to the organ’s capacity for eroticism and power. Certainly, his rendition of Albéniz’s “Evocación” had a languid warmth to savor. And in his arrangement of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, the opening Andante amounted to “Tristan”-drunk pillow talk prefacing the eager, ardent thrusts of the Prestissimo volando.

Steve Smith can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.