The Organ's Future: Out of the Church, Onto the Road

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William Haseltine


Last night I hosted an evening of music in my New York apartment for an extraordinary musician, Cameron Carpenter, an organist. That is correct, an organist. Cameron is dedicated to taking the organ out of the church and onto the road. His vision is that organists should be able, much like violinists, to travel with their instrument. Toward this end, he is designing a state-of-the-art, portable digital instrument that will reproduce the sound of a full scale organ. Modern technology makes it possible to reproduce accurately the sound of each individual pipe of the greatest organs in churches and cathedrals and to improve upon them as needed.

The performance was magical. He brings to his work style and flair not usually associated with organ music. As he plays, his feet, clad in white crystal-studded shoes, literally dance over the pedals. He is anything but drab. Last night he was dressed in white, his shirt adorned with hundreds of Swarovski crystals that sparkled along with the sparkling performance. We were treated to a mixture of classical, contemporary, and improvised music. The program began with Liszt's "Au bord d'une source (Babbling Brook)" that transported us from the dark and stormy night outside to a clear and sunny day in the woods beside a stream. That was followed by the spectacular Bach Toccata in F (transposed to F sharp). His reading of Schubert's "The Erlking" was moving. He dissected each of the voices for us before playing. We were privileged to hear the world premier of Cameron's own work "Aria Opus 1," a beautiful composition that combines modern and classical forms and draws upon the full range and power of the instrument.

The night before a performance, Cameron often takes inspiration from watching a classic film. Last night we heard an improvised tribute to Charlie Chaplin around the theme "Smile" of Modern Times. He closed with the spectacular "Festive Overture" by Shostakovich. The performance received a standing ovation. The encore was playful variations of Mozart's "Turkish March" that demonstrate the rich complexity of sound that an organ can produce.

Afterwards, Cameron spoke of his dedication to take organ music out of the church, to change the image of the organ from a sacred to a secular instrument. His vision is not the parlor organ that we know, but a one that packs the full power of a massive church instrument into one he travels with. Last night he played a Viscount Prestige 80 instrument, assembled that morning in the apartment. We can only imagine what the next generation of concert organs will bring.

I encourage you all to watch his performances on YouTube and at his website. For those who wish to hear him in person you may contact his manager, Richard Torrence at Torrence@circlesinternet.com

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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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