London’s Southbank Centre dearly loves a party. Give it any excuse and the architecture that some have characterized as brutalist is festooned with banners, murals and all manner of colorful whirligigs, giving this hitherto cultural bunker the air of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island-on-Thames.
The return of the Southbank’s 7,866-pipe Harrison organ after six years of restoration was a big excuse. Cue two weeks of concentrated revels at the Pull Out All the Stops Festival, with tendrils feathering through the concert schedule into early June while jaunty artist and community manifestations of organ-ism invite interactions from all and sundry.
My attitude towards the organ has been take it or leave it, with strong tendencies towards the latter. But last summer I’d been blown away by the iconoclastic American organist Cameron Carpenter performing the Shostakovitch Michelangelo Sonnets for Peter Sellars, so the promise of his improvising a score to the 1920 German horror classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, lured me through the door.
The presentation: naked stage with a large center screen for the film and two auxiliaries for a black-and-white feed of Carpenter in action. Musician and film, an inspired fit.
In style first of all. Just as Caligari is known for off-kilter Expressionist sets and exaggerated make-up, Carpenter’s personal style – head shaved on sides, extravagant back-brushed mane between — is a major part of his brand, and happy light years from the norms of classical performance. This night it included a black chevron-sequined jacket, tight leather pants and magic, custom-made, slippers, glove-snug with rhinestoned Cuban heels and what looked to be black bugle-beaded heelcaps.
Impressive look, but as nothing to his playing, for what couldn’t have been further from the dreaded – by me – clichés of E. Power Biggs and Radio City Music Hall.
Virtuosic in all regards, but subtle, modular, with suggestive drama and wit aplenty rather than thundering me into submission. Never a false step, never a hesitation, finally building to satisfactory climax under, over and through what may have been cinema’s first ending with a twist.
The feed’s director was a master as well, inter-cutting Carpenter’s feet glinting and slithering over and among organ’s foot pedals, shots of hands on keys, full shots of the man at work, sometimes imposed on one another, early-film style.
The audience roared.
Candace Allen lives in London. She is the author of ‘Soul Music The Pulse of Race and Music.’
photo credit: thank you los angeles philharmonic