The highlight of yesterday afternoon’s recital by Cameron Carpenter on the Ruffatti organ in Davies Symphony Hall was supposed to be the United States premiere of five movements from his work in progress, an “opera” for solo organ entitled Science Fiction Scenes. However, his talent as a composer never quite measured up to the imaginative qualities found in his work as both performer and arranger. Fortunately, one could appreciate those latter assets through his interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach, César Frank, and Marcel Dupré, along with an arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival” overture.
Anyone attending a Carpenter recital must go in accepting that appearance will be part of the show. Yesterday’s appearance seemed to be that of a Buddhist monk cruising Christopher Street; but, since he performs with his back to the audience (providing most of the house the opportunity to see his full-body management of keyboards, pedals, and stop controls), appearance becomes secondary once the music starts. Carpenter also took the time for professional courtesy to acknowledge the still prevailing sober attitude in Davies over the death of San Francisco Symphony Principal Oboe William Bennett. In Bennett’s memory he performed Bach’s BWV 659, the first of the “Leipzig” chorale settings of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (now come, savior of the gentiles), assigning the chorale theme to an oboe stop (possibly Cor Anglais on the basis of the stop list included in the program book).
BWV 659 was the most straightforward account of the program. Carpenter is given to playing up expressiveness, often through extreme approaches to stop selection but also through crescendos achieved through gradual opening of the swell boxes. His approach to the BWV 542 G minor fantasia and fugue went for the shock value of maximum dynamic strength on the opening chord, turning the entire fantasia into a nightmarish roller-coaster ride; but all of that unbridled energy tended to blur most of the engaging contrapuntal details of the following fugue. Details were more evident in his improvisation on the opening prelude of the BWV 1007 G major suite for solo cello, beginning with the theme played entirely on pedals (with ample stop changes) and then developing into improvised lines on the manuals.
Carpenter then moved into the nineteenth century with Franck’s Opus 17 “Grand Pièce Symphonique” in F-sharp minor, published in a set of six pieces in 1868, followed by the B minor choral, the second of three published in 1890. Both of these works were executed with the full richness of sonority one would expect of Franck, along with a sensitive approach to control of dynamics. Full-force flamboyance then emerged in his performance of Dupré’s Opus 20, his variations on a traditional French Noël theme in D minor, composed in 1922. This was clearly intended as a major exercise in organ virtuosity, and Carpenter executed it with all the exhibitionist verve one would expect from a pianist taking on Franz Liszt at his most virtuosic.
The one arrangement on the program was the Brahms overture. This was, for the most part, true to the score, which had been intended as a show piece for a celebratory occasion. Nevertheless, even with all those pipes and swell boxes at Carpenter’s command, the music never quite captured the frisson of full-out orchestral dynamics when Brahms brings together all of his thematic material in his coda. Whatever its strength in decibels, there are sonorous details in the full power of an orchestra that even the most sophisticated pipe organ will not be able to match.
This brings us to the Science Fiction Scenes “opera.” The five movements Carpenter performed could all be traced back to graphic novels by Chris Ware, and his stop selections made it clear that Ware’s images were more important than his narratives. However, while each of the movements explored the sonorities of different stop combinations, there was an overall sense of uniformity and even blandness to the five selections taken as a whole. As was evident at the last Halloween silent movie night at Davies, Carpenter can take a subdued approach with powerful effect when the occasion requires; but his improvised accompaniment to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was more focused than any of yesterday’s “scenes,” perhaps due to the narrative focus in Robert Wiene’s direction of the film. When completed, Science Fiction Scenes is projected to last more than two hours; but yesterday’s five excerpts already felt as if they were taking too much time for too little effect.