Not since George Frideric Handel have we gotten so excited about an organist. Cameron Carpenter, 26, is a superstar of the 21st-century organ. Prodigiously gifted and a born showman, he wore white tie and tails last Halloween when he performed a fiery accompaniment to Nosferatu, the silent horror film, at Wall Street’s Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.
The pyrotechnics of his performance came from his mastery of the state-of-the-art digital instrument built to replace the old pipe organ that was destroyed by dust when the Twin Towers collapsed. At Carpenter’s urging the Boston-based firm that built the organ, Marshall & Ogletree, added secular innovations—crash cymbals, bass drum, xylophone, glockenspiel—allowing him to add startling effects to his rollicking, toe-tapping rendition of “Cabaret.”
“I’m not a religious person,” Carpenter says. “I want the organ to have an identity outside the church and not to be fettered by the stereotypes of church music.” A master’s graduate of Juilliard, Carpenter was appointed in March as organist and artist-in-residence at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, where a new organ has been installed by Marshall & Ogletree to his exacting specifications. “I intend it to become a groundbreaking center for organists,” Carpenter says.
He is staging a special concert at Middle Collegiate on April 27. Then in September he will play a 12-hour marathon performance (from noon until midnight) to celebrate the launch of his first album, to be released by Telarc. The concert, called Organ Exposé, will include pieces by Scarlatti and Duke Ellington along with the world première of works composed for Carpenter. The album will have a DVD component showing Carpenter performing in white Gucci jeans and a rhinestone-studded T-shirt—adding a little razzle-dazzle to a field associated with solemn liturgical rites.
“The organ world has no glamour,” he says. “The last thing it needs is another dour young man.”