Organist Cameron Carpenter amazes, entertains in KC premiere

In music, what is an improviser’s responsibility to the original? Is there one?

American organist Cameron Carpenter made the latter question difficult to answer in his Kansas City debut Sunday night at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Sunday’s performance had never been heard before and never will be heard again because it was 99 percent improvised. And Carpenter is an extremely fertile improviser.

He opened the all-Bach first half with a theme from one of the solo cello suites, a tour de force played in many places almost completely with his feet.

Though in a better world everyone would know the following comparison is backward, Cameron Carpenter is like someone with the foot speed of an NFL running back.

He also played music from Bach’s first set of preludes and fugues and three pieces from the solo violin Partita No. 3.

Of these, the cheery little Gavotte became a playful, humorous work with even a touch of slapstick here and there.

It was his best effort all evening because it gave the original so much respect but also gave it a completely new feel.

Carpenter did exactly what musicians who can improvise should do. He clearly has all the rules of composition well-settled in his bones.

Then he doesn’t follow them. But also he doesn’t really break them, either.

Yet a lot depends on the original. Bach improv is one thing, Leonard Cohen improv is quite another.

Paul McCartney wrote wonderful songs, and so did Franz Schubert. But perhaps their ability to hold up the weight of a 5,548-pipe organ was why the second half of Carpenter’s concert turned into a long evening.

A Los Angeles Times reviewer hailed Carpenter as “the most technically accomplished organist I have ever witnessed,” which is hard to argue with, and “most important of all, the most musical.”

Is he? It seems prudent not to answer that question just yet because only time will tell.

Carpenter is a controversial figure in organ circles. A lot of local organists showed up Sunday night, and these professionals gave him generally positive but mixed reviews.

Yet the concert was nearly sold out, and Carpenter’s last ovation was very loud, boisterous and enthusiastic.

Good, bad or ugly, there is no music like Cameron Carpenter’s music anywhere else. At the very least, Sunday night’s concert had some truly amazing moments, and it was a fertile source of food for thought.