Top organ gets top organist

July 1, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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For those used to orchestral concerts, the Sydney Opera House was in unfamiliar mode for an organ recital by renowned US organist Cameron Carpenter at afternoon tea time last Saturday, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Cameron Carpenter

While the organ is powered up as an occasional orchestral instrument for the likes of Saint-Saens or Richard Strauss, it is rarely heard on its own in recital. But when arguably the best organist in the world visited Sydney, the odds were in favour of attracting a good crowd, and the opera house management sprang into action.
There were plenty of surprises.  For a start, the patrons were seated in a U formation around the organ’s exhaust pipes to give the sound a chance to blend and mature before it reached their ears and, in some cases, their chests.
High tech got into the act with the placement of two giant screens above the choir stalls. Transmitting from fixed cameras, one brought live coverage of the five manuals while the other focused on the foot pedals. So instead of the organist being seen as the usual pinhead figure in the sky, we could see his hands and feet moving – close up.
Thirty one year old Carpenter was another surprise. He bounced on to the high diving board in black pants plus glitter, finishing in black cowboy boots lacking only the spurs. My obvious ignorance of organists’ footwear had me expecting soft shoes or even slippers popular among popes and cardinals.
And then there was the program. It announced Bach and Mahler arranged by Carpenter followed by some seldom-heard pieces by the atonal Charles Ives. We were warned by a footnote, however, which said: “program repertoire is subject to change”. That was an understatement. Carpenter didn’t play anything on the printed program at all. He began with Debussy (Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune) a generous but different serving of Bach which included his own expansion of one of the cello suites, three pieces by Percy Grainger (Carpenter’s favourite composer) and two improvisations made up by Carpenter on the spot after a minute or so of contemplation. He also threw in adaptions of songs by Leonard Cohen and Franz Schubert. As an encore he presented his transcription of a Chopin Etude in which he played the pedals with his feet

Fraser Beath McEwing

faster than I can play piano keys with my hands. But maybe that’s more to do with me than with him.
The whole performance was nothing short of astonishing; little wonder he has been called the Horowitz of the organ. Even though he told his audience that he hadn’t properly made friends with the opera house organ he was able to exploit its miraculous variety of sounds. He could make it weep, roar or bark.
The opera house organ is a magnificent instrument, deserving of more gigs than it currently gets. It is the world’s biggest mechanical action organ, has 10,154 pipes, 200 pipe ranks and 131 speaking stops with electrical stop action.  It was originally designed and built by an Australian, Ronald Sharp of Sydney, helped by Mark Fisher, Myk Fairhurst and Raymond Bridge. Sharp began planning the instrument in 1967 when the concert hall was under construction and was awarded the organ-building contract in 1969. It took ten years to complete and its budget of $400,000 blew out to $1.2 million, echoing the ballooning cost of the Sydney Opera House in which it lives.

 

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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