By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Cameron Carpenter and Paul Jacobs, two of America’s star organists — even at the tender ages of 29 and 33, respectively — played recitals Sunday in Los Angeles. Because the concerts were 3½ hours apart and in close proximity, it was possible for organ enthusiasts to hear both, although it would appear that not many took advantage of the opportunity. Carpenter’s recital at First Congregational Church, Los Angeles appeared to cut into Jacobs’ crowd at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Actually, this was a particularly stellar weekend for organists. Jacobs was the soloist in Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in three concerts with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa. For the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which presented last night’s Disney Hall recital, Jacobs’ OC residency was a lucky break because he was able to jump in as a late substitute for Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin when she had to cancel due to health reasons. With his own OC concerts and the Philharmonic in residence this weekend, finding time for Jacobs to practice and register the DH organ can’t have been easy, although he had played in Disney Hall three years ago.
Despite their similar ages (Carpenter actually studied with Jacobs briefly), the two men are poles apart in performing style. Carpenter emphasizes flash and showmanship; he dresses in white tee shirts adorned with crystals and tight white jeans and announces his programs, heavily laced with his own arrangements, during the concert (“I have a zero-tolerance policy to printed programs,” he told the large audience).
By contrast, Jacobs’ program Sunday was a model of probity: meaty selections by Reger, Franck and Liszt and a four-minute prelude by Nadia Boulanger. Neither artist acknowledged the other’s recital. At the end of a long day, I came away with two thoughts: (a) I can’t imagine either playing the other’s program, and (b) Carpenter is like someone with whom you’d want to have a passionate affair, while Jacobs is a person with whom you’d want to establish a deep, permanent relationship.
Carpenter acts like no other major artist you’ve ever seen. With 20 minutes to go before the scheduled 4 p.m. start time, he was wandering the aisles of the cathedral-like church, greeting old friends (he has a politician’s memory) and thanking everyone for coming. In some locales he uses video screens so people can see his hands and feet while he’s playing. There were none at First Congo, unfortunately.
Unlike the normal “please don’t use cameras or camera phones” announcement, Carpenter doesn’t care one whit about such things. He relishes the spotlight. But don’t be put off by his antics. "There are those who are frustrated by the spectacle of Cameron," Jacobs acknowledged in a Los Angeles Times article Saturday (LINK). "But ultimately one needs to get beyond those things to the heart of what he is doing and judge him on his artistry."
That proved to be good advice, although it’s clear that Carpenter is an artist that most people either love or hate — there’s little middle ground. He’s extremely engaging with the audience, many of whom don’t regularly attend organ concerts. His between-piece chats help explain what he’s playing and why, and he ultimately gave the name of every piece he played except for the encores. He was also inventive in using many of the 20,000 pipes spread throughout the massive church, some of which probably haven’t been played before.
After a brief introduction by the church’s senior pastor (who noted that the large crowd looked like Easter Sunday), Carpenter came out 20 minutes after the appointed hour and opened with a single, soft note that led to a quirky, yet dazzling rendition of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. He continued with very fast performances of two Bach Preludes and Fugues and then his own Two Intermezzi for Cinema Organ (finding non-traditional uses for pipe organs is one of Carpenter’s many passions).
Carpenter prefaced two sketches of Marcel Dupré by noting that he was trying to push the envelope of what’s physically possible in playing the organ. The B-flat selection was a dazzling demonstration of that concept and of his prodigious technique. After Sisters of Mary, his arrangement of a song by Leonard Cohen, Carpenter concluded the first half with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major, although the ending morphed into his own cadenza-like finish that Bach wouldn’t have recognized.
The second half of the program was less interesting. Carpenter began with three short pieces related to mythology and story-telling and concluded with three of his improvisations. The differences between one’s own compositions and improvs weren’t explained adequately but the final selection, based on Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, was easily the biggest crowd pleaser.
Jacobs (who undoubtedly looks younger than some of his Juilliard students) is the antithesis of Carpenter’s flashy style, although Jacobs also possesses a formidable technique and adds to it a deep, probing musical mind. He opened with Reger’s Organ Sonata No. 2, which was notable for interesting registrations and ultra-clean playing, not easy when dealing with Reger’s thick textures. After Boulanger’s gentle Prelude in F minor, Jacobs closed with first half with Franck’s Final in B-flat Major, Op. 21. Jacobs’ virtuosity is less dazzling than Carpenter’s but was constantly impressive throughout the relatively short evening (which ran about an hour less than Carpenter’s program).
After intermission, Jacobs sailed with seemingly effortlessness through Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, a work that Liszt wrote while living in Weimar more than a century after Bach. Before getting down to business, The performance highlighted many of the Disney Hall organ’s colors, offered a riveting Adagio section, and built inexorably to the blazing conclusion.
As an encore, both Jacobs and Carpenter played the same piece: Bach’s Toccata in F Major — perhaps a better response would be to say each played a piece with the same name. Carpenter tore through his rendition at breakneck speed, again showing off his technique. Jacobs delivered plenty of virtuosity but also emphasized the other, less-showy portions, as well, in what, to my mind, was a far more musical performance..
• Jacobs gets high marks in my book for acknowledging audience member sitting to the sides of the organ, rather than just those in front of him (no one sits underneath the pipes during a recital). It’s one of Gustavo Dudamel’s most enduring qualities but one too often overlooked by other artists.
• Carpenter is scheduled to play at Disney Hall on May 8, 2011 as part of the Philharmonic’s “Brahms Unbound” festival. Right now, the working phrase is “Brahms works arranged for organ.” I can’t wait to hear what that will mean, but one thing’s for sure: it will be showy.
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.