A Maverick Organist Cuts Loose on a Christmas Standard

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Cameron Carpenter has done it again.

The supremely gifted, flamboyant organist offers another example of his remarkable technical and musical skills in a new recording and video of “Sleigh Ride.”

Carpenter made his recording earlier this month on the Marshall & Ogletree Opus 5 digital organ at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village. There are many things to appreciate here, but let’s start with the most spectacular. Notice where Cameron plays the melody of “Sleigh Ride” when it first appears. Hint: Don’t look at his hands.

Now, it would be amazing enough if Cameron were playing that melody, which covers more than an octave, with his feet. But he doesn’t play it with his feet. He plays it with just his right foot. And while he’s doing that, his left foot is busy with the usual organist-feet duty of the bass notes. And he’s not – to use an expression – sitting on his hands during any of this, either. His “Sleigh Ride” is a very fair organ transcription of the original version for orchestra, but Carpenter also adds counter-melodies of his own here and there throughout the piece. You'll note that he’s often playing more than one manual, or keyboard, at a time, too, and constantly changing registrations – the combinations of organ sounds designated to be played on one manual or another.

If those sounds seem a little strange coming from a church organ, it’s because they aren’t church organ stops. They’re more typical of a theater organ, the instrument that accompanied silent movies a hundred years ago. Carpenter, who designed the Middle Collegiate instrument to include the theater organ stops, describes it as “another drop in the bucket of my argument for the supremacy of the digital organ.”

Carpenter told me that he began his serious organ studies at the American Boychoir School (ABS) in Princeton. At the time, Leroy Anderson’s famous work for orchestra -- which first appeared in 1949 on a Boston Pops recording -- became part of his repertory. “It was when I was there I arranged much music for organ, and the first things I started on were the pieces of Leroy Anderson – 40 or 50 of them.”

That school is part of the reason for this new recording. “As an alum of ABS, I’m terribly proud of what it has to offer and terribly concerned that its attendance is down; that it has taken several hits over the last decade," he said. "My first experience in Europe, my first international organ broadcast and solo recitals were with ABS.” So Carpenter has designated proceeds of the “Sleigh Ride” single on iTunes to go his choral alma mater.

You’re probably wondering about his snazzy shoes. “The shoes began life as Capezio Latin Oxfords, heavily modified. We’re in the midst of a total redesign of organ shoes. The shoes are a very important part of the playing, and it’s long been my feeling that organ shoes are spectacularly badly engineered for playing the organ. This shoe is a real dance shoe. It weighs almost nothing. It has an extended heel.”

And the sequins – or are they rhinestones? Not for this showman. “They’re neither sequins nor rhinestones," said Carpenter, who designs his own outfits. "They’re crystals; they’re Swarovski, so they’re coming from Austria. I find that crystals on the shoes not only improve visibility, but they’re very difficult to imitate without being totally obvious.”

If you’d like to see Cameron Carpenter and his crystal-studded organ shoes in person around New York, you’ll have to wait until 2012. Cameron lives in Berlin these days, and his next scheduled public appearance in the area is an April 29 concert in Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark.

In the meantime, if you’d like a couple of other examples of Carpenter’s virtuosity, see his transcription of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, in which he plays the left-hand piano part with only his feet. The video was made for his first Telarc recording three years ago. Or watch his 2007 performance of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” playing the piccolo part with just his feet. You can hear the gasps of amazement from the audience when they realize what he’s doing. Both performances took place on the Marshall & Ogletree organ at Trinity Church in Manhattan.

Reactions to Carpenter’s organ-pedal pyrotechnics can be surprisingly strong. When I sent the “Sleigh Ride” video around to some friends, several of them replied by saying, “That’s incredible. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing.” Except they didn’t use those words. They used shorter, pithier, expressions of three or four syllables that we can’t possibly print on this family-oriented Web site. I did share them with Cameron, though, and he seemed quite pleased, saying, “I’ve always felt that organ-playing should inspire profanity whenever possible.”