By Jacob Street

Dear Cameron Carpenter,

StreetThanks for reading this. I know that you are very busy. You play more organ concerts in a year than I may give in my entire lifetime! But this brings me to a confession: I’m an organist myself. I know what you think: that I hate you. That I think you’re a fraud and a hack. That I hate your history-be-damned style, your traveling digital organ, and your flamboyant performances. That I must be one of the leading exponents of the organ whose every preconception you challenge, like the Wall Street Journal wrote about you.

But I’m here to tell you the opposite—I don’t hate you. In fact, most organists don’t hate you. And why should they? You’re a great advocate for the instrument. You’re passionate and successful. You work hard, and your technique is impressive. You even show more than a few glimmers of what a “traditional organist” would call “traditional musicality”! I would certainly protest being included as one of your (imagined or otherwise) fervent detractors. This letter is in no way designed to contribute to the martyr-like image the media constructs around you. We organists are a stodgy bunch, but we can still respect your work, just as we respect any product of American dedication to finely processed marketability—like the Twilight novels, or Cheese Whiz.

But listen to you! You sound exhausted. You talk about retiring early and dying young. It’s a tough job to play a different organ almost every day. It’s so tough, actually, that no ordinary organists choose to do it. But you’re no ordinary organist. You have a strict workout routine designed to keep those limbs limber, in what you call an “out-of-shape field.” You’re striking blows for artistic freedom (your words) in each sequin you painstakingly sew to your performance shirts. You transcribe everything from Chopin to Indiana Jones themes for the organ, you undeniably play the hell out of them, and you always add a personal spin.

But listen: you need to relax. You don’t have to worry about the mark you’ll leave on the world after you’re gone, because you’re probably not going to leave one at all! And that’s OK. In fifty years, people will still be playing J.S. Bach the same ways they’ve always played it, and no one will be playing Chopin like Cameron Carpenter. It’s simply too much for one man to buck centuries of tradition all by himself. But this shouldn’t be too surprising. You claim to be the “first Cameron Carpenter,” not the second Virgil Fox, but that famous organ virtuoso’s career certainly followed this sort of organist-as-auteur idea—and today’s organ world is more strictly devoted to the ideas of the past than ever.

And, again, don’t confuse this with my own personal prejudices. Your performances are a dreamy, stupefying gateway to even more serious stuff, and anything that gets people pursuing a new interest can’t be all bad.

But why will your take on the organ always be the alternative, the sideshow, the unusual? Is it laziness from most organists? Or the pervasiveness of the more “traditional” style in church music? Well, really, it’s the centuries of tradition and history that you’re trying to upheave. You say that you hate those who venerate the instrument over the performer—after all, “you don’t go to hear Van Halen’s guitar, or Lang Lang’s piano,” as you told The New Yorker. And you think it’s absurd to have to deal with technical problems in the midst of a concert—that you should be able to perform without the so-called “filter of obnoxious malfunction.” I’ll certainly grant you those two points to some degree—maybe The American Organist magazine could feature an American organist on its cover someday, instead of just American organs! And sure, breaking the instrument in the middle of a concert is just so darn frustrating, you know?

But it’s the challenge and uniqueness of each instrument that should make it fun to play and interesting to be heard, not annoying. You say that you want more of a relationship with an organ than “a one-night stand” — that you “crave the relationship that the most meagre violinist has with his instrument.” But, hell, what could be more “intimate” (if I must extend your disturbing metaphor) than getting to know an instrument that is distinct from every other one like it? Organs have more variety in their mechanics, sound, and personality than any other instrument, ever. That makes it very easy to play them badly — that’s why so few organists would ever play so many different organs in such a short time — but it makes them even more satisfying to play well. And doesn’t that challenge interest you enough to make you reconsider playing all of your recitals on the same damn electronic box?

So let it not be said that organists don’t love fun, or lots of real fast notes, or even Indiana Jones. We do, really, even in our own playing. And the exposure your passion brings to our beloved instrument is invaluable. Just remember that the artist is judged by his handling of the instrument, and not the other way around. The best organists are part of an old, yes, but still living tradition — one in which they work with their instruments to create beautiful music, and don’t fight the very machine they’re playing. And they don’t resent it for its many foibles and problems; that’s what makes it a unique experience. Sure, it may not draw as big of a crowd as your whiz-bang star-fests, but that’s not what they’re in it for. We organists are stodgy and proud. And we don’t hate you, either. Picture a trained seal running for elected office. Sure, it’s cute, undeniably talented, and plenty entertaining; it’s just not the sort of messenger you’d choose to represent the intricacies and difficulties of a deep and beautiful world.

Jake Street

Jacob Street, from North Reading, Massachusetts, graduated summa cum laude from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. As the organ scholar of the class of 2010, he studied with James David Christie. Street is pursuing a Master of Music in Historical Performance at Oberlin, where he has studied organ with Olivier Latry and James David Christie, harpsichord with Webb Wiggins, and clavichord with David Breitman. Currently, he holds the position of Minister of Music at Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Cleveland.

Street has been a prizewinner in national and inter-national organ competitions, and was recently accepted as a semifinalist in the upcoming Jurow International Harpsichord Competition. He has had the opportunity to study, compete, and perform in several European countries, including Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, and Estonia. In 2006, under the direction of Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Julian Kuerti, Street played the organ with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for about three and a half measures in the last two minutes of a Tchaikovsky symphony. He has been named one of ten Rubin Fellows who will participate in Oberlin’s Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in January.

Published on January 3, 2012