One trailblazer defies the mainstream by shattering stereotypes about the organ and organists through both his showmanship and virtuosity. The other, a young violinist, has developed a cult following for his audacious fashions and provocative takes on classical music as performance art.
Next week, young avant-garde musicians Cameron Carpenter and Amadeus Leopold, both Juilliard-trained, virtuosic musicians who are shaking up the classical music world, will perform as part of E.J. Thomas Hall’s Contemporaries series. The series’ goal is to attract young concert-goers to hear accomplished, radically cutting-edge musicians within their age group.
The Contemporaries series kicked off Sunday with YouTube sensation 2Cellos, known for breaking boundaries between genres of music. On Wednesday, the 32-year-old Carpenter will undoubtedly dazzle and delight on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at the Akron Civic Theatre, followed by 25-year-old Leopold Saturday in an EJ UpClose performance with orchestra-only seating at E.J. Thomas Hall.
Both young men are on the cusp of exciting happenings in their career, with Carpenter poised to record his first Sony Classical album and launch a new, custom-made touring organ that has been seven years in the making. Leopold also is about to release a new album on a multimedia platform.
Carpenter has been described in the press as the most controversial organist in the world, a superstar of the 21st-century organ, an “ambitious radical” and a “maverick organist.” Music writers call him a “clever eclecticist” with “mind-blowing technique combined with charisma” who has built up one of the largest and most diverse repertoires of any organist in the world.
The unorthodox organist, who grew up in Meadville, Pa., fell in love with the instrument at age 4 and has always approached the organ from a secular rather than a religious point of view. He moved to Princeton, N.J., at 11 to attend the American Boychoir School as a boy soprano. He moved to New York in 2000, where he received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Juilliard.
Carpenter has made waves by loudly dismissing the traditional pipe organ in favor of the virtual pipe organ, a digital instrument that allows him to push the organ, which he calls “one of the great frontiers,” to new heights.
In concert, he is known for his flamboyance, including the glittery shirts he embellishes by hand, and for his habit of working the crowd before his performances.
Speaking by phone from Needham, Mass., on Oct. 28, Carpenter rhapsodized about his brand new touring organ, built there by Marshall & Ogletree, the same small company that built the new digital pipe organ for Trinity Church Wall Street after its old organ was destroyed in 9/11. Carpenter’s digital pipe organ is the company’s eighth.
“I’m just getting to know the instrument deeply,” said Carpenter, who added that he had just 11 rehearsal days left interspersed among seven concert tour dates until he records his debut Sony album Thanksgiving week on the new touring organ.
“It’s extremely intense.”
Carpenter’s album, to be released by Sony Classical in spring 2014, will combine a variety of his transcriptions of classic and modern music for organ — including a cycle of song treatments ranging from the American songbook to present day — with the world premiere recording of his new work Music for an Imaginary Film.
The musician says his new instrument combines the best of the classic cathedral pipe organ with the cinema organ. The modular new organ features a five-keyboard console; a parallel processing system with samples from several key organs; and a concert audio system designed to work from outside to TV, nightclubs and large concert halls.
Until now, Carpenter has adapted to organs at concert venues, as he will do with the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Akron Civic Theatre. Creating his own digital pipe organ, which Carpenter calls an “engineering masterpiece” that can be set up within three hours on tour, solves that problem.
“My sort of mandate of course has been to bring one of the great organs of the world wherever I perform,” Carpenter said. “I’ll actually be giving my audiences my best as a violinist would” with their personal instrument.
“I believe it’s the greatest organ in the world,” Carpenter said. “It has more color, more precision, more rhythm and more resources tonally in one place than there would ever be possible with a conventional pipe organ.”
He’ll unveil the touring organ with a daylong festival March 9 at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
In Akron, Carpenter must get to know the Mighty Wurlitzer before he decides what to play on it. He’ll get about eight hours of rehearsal and hopes to play some Bach, French 20th century music and film music as well as do some improvisation.
Carpenter works to turn perceptions about organists on their ear: Rather than focusing on the instrument itself, he focuses on it as a vehicle of expression for a persona, and is dedicated to creating his own sound.
He’s well aware that he’s perceived as the “bad boy of the organ,” a moniker that he calls dismissive. In the organ world, “it takes no great, outstanding character to be a rebel,” he said.
Carpenter focuses on visuals such as appearance as a performer, but said the most interesting work has to do with the expression and emotion he discovers in the music.
Yet he doesn’t think his controversial reputation is all bad: “I think everything that brings me to the attention of people who may benefit from hearing me or enjoy what I do is worthwhile.”
Creating a look
For performance artist Amadeus Leopold, visuals are extremely important, considering his music videos are an intrinsic part of his music making. The South Korean musician, born Hahn-Bin, combines music with drama and a visual element that’s very personal to him, said his longtime teacher, Itzhak Perlman.
Leopold, who worked with Madonna on her MDNA album, has performed everywhere from the Louis Vuitton flagship store on Fifth Avenue in uptown New York to the Stone downtown, presented by the late Lou Reed and his wife, violinist and performance artist Laurie Anderson. He also spent two months playing his own performance series, Soliloquy for Andy Warhol, at the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2011.
His provocative fashions, makeup and hairstyles are part of his expression but also an attempt to make classical music relevant to young people. The music he plays is primarily 19th- and 20th-century classical repertoire, staged in visually striking ways.
Leopold changed his name last year to honor Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as well as his father, Leopold. The name also is a tribute to Leopold Auer, a 19th century Hungarian virtuoso violinist.
Leopold, speaking by phone from his new home base in Cleveland on Oct. 29, insisted that he sees no boundaries between classical and pop music. Growing up listening to the radio in South Korea, “classical music for me was pop music,” he said.
He moved from South Korea to California at age 11, relocating to New York at age 15 to study at the Juilliard School at the invitation of Perlman. As a young student, his Los Angeles teacher, Robert Lipsett, taught at Encore Strings Academy in Hudson, where Leopold spent six summers. He remembers fondly spending time at Angel Falls café and Mustard Seed Market, as well as sneaking into the University of Akron practice rooms to rehearse.
Leopold made his debut in 2008 at the Louvre in Paris. But after living a hectic performance artist’s life for years in fast-paced New York, he decided “Ohio was where I wanted to be.”
“Because my performances are so incredibly taxing on the body … when I would think about a home, Ohio was the answer.”
“I really had an emotional attachment to Ohio,” said Leopold, who moved to Cleveland in May.
He said the move was all about getting off the hamster wheel and taking charge of his career. Now, he’s preparing to release three full-length classical albums in 2014 titled The Renaissance Diaries of Amadeus Leopold, which will feature every work he has performed in his performance projects since his Paris debut. Leopold said the trilogy will not be traditional albums and will include music videos that go well beyond documentaries that often accompany classical music releases.
Whenever Leopold performs, he asks himself: “How do I express myself and how do I tell meaningful, personal stories to my audience?”
In Akron, he’ll perform a concert he has designed exclusively for E.J. Thomas Hall, under the same title as his upcoming album. It will be his last public performance before he releases his album early next year. The show will be an X-ray of classical music history featuring 22 different composers.
Leopold’s genres include baroque, romantic classical, avant-garde classical, Broadway and cinema. He plays 300-year-old music in everything from leopard prints to geisha getups, but insists comparisons between him and Lady Gaga are false.
“The heart and core of what I am is a vintage soul,” he said. “I’m more Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland and Jacques Brel than Lady Gaga.”
Bill Sallak, assistant professor of music at Kent State University who also teaches at the University of Akron, said Leopold reminds him of David Bowie, changing his persona often (think Ziggy Stardust) and using his way of dress and video as a way of communicating and disseminating his work.
“It sounds like he wants his documents to be multimedia affairs that are unified,” Sallak said of Leopold. “It sounds a lot like what Bjork did for her last album, called Biophilia.” That multimedia project encompassed music, apps, the Internet, installations and live shows.
Sallak said that Juilliard-trained musicians such as Leopold and Carpenter aren’t necessarily pursuing classical careers with American orchestras, which aren’t in a growth mode. Instead, they want to apply their classical knowledge to some aspect of mainstream music culture.
He said Carpenter’s combination of virtuosity, passion and excitement about all the organ can do draws people to him: “I think it’s great. I think the organ is one of those instruments that could use a cultural rehabilitation.”
Both Carpenter and Leopold are at the forefront of a wave of classically trained young musicians who are breaking down walls, Sallak said.
“We’re in the very last stages of this highbrow-lowbrow division where there’s classical music and there’s popular music and there isn’t a lot of dialogue between the two.”
“There is a critical mass of young people who are breaking down the barrier and … more and more of the classical old guard is coming around to realize that without tapping into this conversation, without this dialogue with mainstream culture, that the future of classical music is just not very bright.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.