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October 9, 2013

Local teacher recalls teaching virtuoso Carpenter

MEADVILLE — Editor’s note: Vernon Township resident Beth Etter has been a music educator and performer on the regional, national and international stage for many years. When a budding young student from Townville started his piano studies in her Meadville studio more than a quarter century ago, she had no idea what was in store. What follows is her account of their most recent adventures.

“Sit down. I’ve got a kinda crazy idea for you.” So began the call from Cameron Carpenter last September from his home in Berlin.

What follows here are a few prized memories of my nearly lifelong relationship with this student, friend and colleague — and my privileged participation in the life of a genius.

The call was an invitation to come to London and critique his preparation for his solo organ performance in the BBC Proms (the world’s greatest classical music festival) at Royal Albert Hall. “The only problem,” he said, “is you’ll have to hop on a plane tomorrow.”

His solo performances (two of them) were the first double billing ever of an organ soloist in the prestigious, more than century-old event. He continued, “Anyone else will just say, “Wow. Unbelievable.’ You’ll tell me the truth. If I suck, you’ll say so.”

Of course, I went. I sat in the first row, the middle rows — left, right and center, as far back as I could go and more in order to assess his sound in the spectacular, circular hall. I watched and marveled at the maniacal yet methodical, intensely focused, organized rehearsal which didn’t end until he was satisfied with nuances often hard to detect. What do you expect from a young talent whose ambition is to change the position of the organ in the entire world — forever?

The rehearsal lasted until 4 or 5 a.m. and then began again the next morning, the only practice time available in the over-scheduled venue. I remember worrying that there was no human way for Cameron to burn as much energy as he did in preparation and save the best for the actual performance. Then, I watched the last minute presto-chango to concert clothes and thought, “Oh no, he might be late!”

Once a teacher, always a teacher. When I saw Cameron own the hall, perform his typical recital of breathtaking agility, superhuman musical athleticism, musical ideas so grandiose as to herald a new musical aesthetic — entirely from memory after being up all night — I realized what I’ve always known: Here is a performer who has no choice but to do what he was born to do.

On Sept. 29 (just weeks ago), I traveled to the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to attend the National Symphony Orchestra Season Opening Ball featuring Yo Yo Ma and Cameron Carpenter as soloists. Once again, a last-minute phone call got me a ticket, not only to the performance, but to the Gala Ball, where I was Cameron’s “plus 1,” entitling me to sit at Table 36 with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nina Totenberg (award-winning legal affairs correspondent, National Public Radio), Cameron, the assistant conductor of the orchestra and more.

Yo Yo’s performance of “Variations on a Rococo Theme” Opus 33 by Tchaikovsky showcased what one would expect from the cellist who has become in the words of a senior vice president at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, “the only guaranteed slam-dunk in the classical world.” His effortless agility combined with supreme musicality, intelligence and mastery delivered, with what has become Ma’s familiar Buddha-like smile — no matter the challenge — make it so easy to understand why he is simply at the top.

And then there was Cameron. A bit of fidgeting and shuffling occurred as he confidently took his seat at the organ as the Washington crowd struggled to come to grips with his getup: an artsy looking jacket instead of a tuxedo, a tie of feathers instead of a bow, and — oh no! — a mohawk. Cameron performed the finale from Saint-Saens’ Symphony No . 3 in C minor, “The Organ Symphony,” with perfect collaboration, technical acumen, creative and enhancing registration, professional ease, sensitivity and good taste. As the audience warmly responded, and orchestral musicians mistakenly stood to leave the stage, Conductor Christoph Eschenbach nodded to Cameron to return to the organ for a solo.

Cameron chose to play his own transcription of a Bach cello suite (why not honor Yo Yo tonight!) in which most of the intricate multi-voiced single line demands the greatest of musical mastery. Cameron’s transcription places much of the most lightening paced intricacy in his feet. He performed with brilliance, creativity and athletic virtuosity that has brought him the international fame he has earned. He owned the place, and the Washington crowd got it, jumping to their feet and hailing bravos. Yes, there were some who hated it. That is the challenge of forging new territory, and it has ever been so.

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