For Cameron Carpenter, the organ — in any form — ‘contains everything’

When Cameron Carpenter performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he will be properly appreciative of its famed Casavant Frères organ while also carrying memories of the one that got away. 

A prolific organist and recording artist, Carpenter is a strong advocate of digital technology. Decades of playing on other institutions’ existing instruments led him to spend years designing and creating his own organ: a set-up of software, cables and speakers that could be carefully loaded into a semi truck and transported to wherever he had a concert. 

“Pipe organs are all unique, and they have value and a role,” said Carpenter, who joins the CSO for concerts Dec. 15-18. But when he sits down to someone else’s console, he has to figure out how to “play to the instrument’s strengths and overcome its weaknesses.” Many organists will say that a digital instrument is only a substitute for the real thing, but Carpenter believes that “they start where pipe organs leave off.” 

The 72-channel, 206-stop International Touring Organ, made for him in 2014 by Marshall & Ogletree of Needham, Massachusetts, was “the perfect organ for my needs,” he said. “It was my personal statement on what an organ should be.” 

But in 2020, Carpenter’s organ became one of the unlikeliest casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organist, who lives in Berlin, came down with the virus there, and before he could recover to supervise storage and moving of the instrument, its electronic components were damaged beyond repair. The five-manual console is now in storage. 

“It taught me a lot about loss,” he said. “And it changed my feelings about music itself. It disrupted my conviction that I want to be a musician.”

He still has the software, but putting the organ back together, if it ever happens, will require a sponsor of some kind. “It was like running a small opera company, using revenues from this season to finance operations for next season.”

“The organ contains everything. It’s a self-sufficient musical environment.” — Cameron Carpenter

As a child, Carpenter played piano and sang as well as learning the organ, but “I was attracted to the visual aspect, and I went on from that,” he said. “The organ contains everything. It’s a self-sufficient musical environment.”

But as visually and aurally imposing at it is, “the organ understands only on or off,” he said. A light or heavy touch on the same key will produce the same result. “It already contains everything you’re going to withdraw.”

Carpenter made his reputation as a formidable and idiosyncratic recitalist. Writing in the New York Times in 2012, Zachary Wolfe observed, “In his interpretations and arrangements, Mr. Carpenter shows consummate sensitivity to a work’s and composer’s style and character but a way of achieving his ends that is all his own. Following along with the score during one of his recitals will get you nowhere, but you will hear sides of the music that you had never before considered.”

But working with a conductor and dozens of other instrumentalists, of course, is another matter. “It’s always a special experience to get to play with an orchestra,” he said. “The texture of the organ and the orchestra together is probably the richest combination of instruments that can be found.”

With the CSO, he will be featured as a soloist in the first half for Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings. In the second half, although the Saint-Saens is popularly known as the “Organ” Symphony, his instrument has a much more supporting role; accordingly, the console will be moved to the back of the stage. He will be looking forward to that: “I get to play with other musicians in a collegial way for once. That never happens.” In the Poulenc, the composer’s attitude is “more confrontational.”

The concert was originally scheduled to be conducted by Bramwell Tovey, a frequent CSO guest and a good friend of Carpenter’s, who died in July. “I’ve worked with Nikolaj once before, and it will be fine,” Carpenter said, referring to conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, Tovey’s replacement on the program. “But Bramwell was much loved by the orchestra, and by many orchestras. For me, it will be the Bramwell Tovey memorial concert.”