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Cameron Carpenter has been called “the most controversial organist in the world,” which seems, you know, patently ridiculous. How many other organists can you name, ranked by controversy or otherwise? He’s also been called “the most pretentious musician in the world,” which seems, to me, a little unfair. That designation is based on a couple YouTube videos of the guy bedazzling a pair of Chuck Taylors and doing one of those Amoeba Records What’s in My Bag? videos…in which he reveals himself to be a Taylor Swift fan. Now watch any other Amoeba video, starting with Fred Armisen, and ask yourself if Carpenter is objectively more pretentious.

OK, so there’s also this: a promo piece for the guy put out by his label, Sony Classical, which is, admittedly, pretty over the top. Sony Classical appears to have pulled the video from youtube, but thankfully it’s been reposted elsewhere, so you can judge for yourself:

That said, I was inclined to dismiss the vitriol as a case of haters-gonna-hate (with a whiff of homophobia) by the reddit crowd, or pearls-clutching by the classical crowd. After all, it takes very little to be the most controversial anything in this genre. Just ask Lang Lang: spike your hair with some gel and watch classical critics lose their shit. Yes, Carpenter’s tank top-and-mohawk style has the look of a RISD student channeling Freddie Mercury and Rihanna. He’s also a fine musician who puts on a good show. Hell, even the shoe bedazzling has a performance-enhancing purpose. As an organist, he has to perform with his back to the audience; however he also has to do a lot of fancy footwork, which was on display in his foot pedal cadenza for Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva at the Kennedy Center on Thursday.

Anyway, that’s what I thought until I heard him speak, which he did at great length at Thursday’s post-show AfterWords discussion. “The crucible of inquiry, musically and aesthetically, is based on the ability to question” is one thing that came out of his mouth that I haven’t the foggiest idea what it means; “the organ is like a bonded system” is another.

So yeah, the guy’s full of himself. But why is that such a sin? Especially if he has the talent to back it up. We expect a certain degree of posturing and narcissism among hip-hop artists, why not classical musicians? Any successful soloist cultivates a persona. It just so happens the range of acceptable personae is limited mostly to the aw-shucks down-to-earth Joshua Bell type. Carpenter is definitely not down to earth (he was homeschooled, for what it’s worth). He’s also intent on expanding the scope of his instrument from a limited, mostly liturgical, repertoire and making it “borderline relevant.” Personally, the few times I think of organs I think of church, baseball, and Dracula, so if he succeeds, it would be a worthy accomplishment.

Carpenter played a nice (and slightly modified—guest conductor Sarah Hicks took out a violin part she deemed inaudible) Barber piece with the NSO that doesn’t have the whiz-bang appeal of one of his Rachmaninoff rhapsodies, and actually showed off his restraint. The piece is less of a soloist showcase and more of a series of call-and-responses between the organ and different instruments in the orchestra. The cadenza was indeed terrific and Carpenter’s pedalwork dazzling (literally), but at other times he was understated and meandering. Hicks took the Toccata’s odd 5/8 meter at a leisurely tempo, though Carpenter and the orchestra weren’t always totally integrated, a downside to having a soloist so far down the stage from the conductor. Carpenter followed up with an improvised piece he announced beforehand was somehow inspired by Lewis and Clark’s expedition with Clark’s slave York (who “didn’t get the right to vote until the Emancipation Proclamation”—cue the Drunk History episode), but it was fairly abstract and any explorer theme was lost on me.

Here’s another Carpenter quote from a 2011 interview: “There is a flaccid, unconvincing trend that has been putting MacBooks on stage next to string quartets, and ‘turntablists’ on stage with ensembles, and this is a waste of resources and a sin against the passionate, and the quality in music and performance.” That’s awkward because one of the other pieces in the program—and the real highlight—was a wonderful 2011 composition called Mothership by Mason Bates, who performed it on stage, next to the orchestra, with a MacBook. It’s a chill piece that mixes in Barber-like lyricism, Adams-like minimalism, and house beats, punctuated by steam-piston sound effects. Bates, who has a parallel career as a successful DJ, enjoys a high enough profile as a composer to see his pieces performed fairly frequently. And as the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, he seems to know how to find a meal ticket: this piece was commissioned by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, and he’s working on an opera about Steve Jobs. D.C.’s nice, but if there’s a modern day King Ludwig for contemporary composers, he or she probably resides in Silicon Valley.

The all-American program also included The Chairman Dances from John AdamsNixon in China, Paul Creston’s Dance Overture for Orchestra, and Aaron Copland’s suite from Billy the Kid. The Adams piece, depicting a sensuous dance between Mao and his wife Jiang Qing, was the most delightful, showing off Adams’ keen sense of melody and jazzy rhythms—the violins keeping the beat with alternating pizzicato and spiccato bowing—that made his opera one of the most successful of the late 20th century. Creston’s overture also had a light, springy rhythm with some quirky additions, such as clapping. Only the Copland piece, normally upbeat and celebratory, sagged, and was plagued by repeatedly off key horns.

Hicks, normally a pops conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra, is well suited to lead a dancy program. She danced along with all the pieces from the podium, while leading the orchestra capably. Hicks is also a rare female conductor to grace the Kennedy Center stage. This isn’t so much the Kennedy Center’s fault as it is an endemic problem within classical music, that of gender imbalance in conducting. Something the Kennedy Center should keep in mind as they continue to try out composers for Eschenbach’s replacement. As a pops conductor, Hicks has an easy feel for audience engagement and crowd-pleasing programming, though leading a regular orchestra would require her to handle the heavy stuff too, which can’t be evaluated based on this program.

But if this was a tryout, there weren’t many people there to see it. The concert hall Thursday was half empty, and audience reaction was muted. It’s hard to say if it was Carpenter or the program that kept people away, but I’d guess (or as Carpenter says, “I would posit the following”) there just isn’t much of an audience for organ soloists, no matter how flamboyant—or button-down—they may be.

The program repeats Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $15 – $89.

Photo via The Kennedy Center