I am no stranger to the Walt Disney Music Hall.
One of its fine features is the focal point in the main concert hall: the Pipe Organ. It looks like no other, and seems to resemble a splaying upwards of wooden French fries. They are the pipes and behind them are shuttered slats that are a system of horizontal and vertical valves that open and close, releasing magnificent sound. Only maestros should have the privilege of performing on this one of a kind organ. Today, Cameron Carpenter joined the ranks of esteemed organists who got the chance to fire-up the artistically designed bad boy brute of an organ….
The concert was set for 2 pm on Sunday and it was marvelous! It exceeded my expectations. It began with a composition by Christopher Cerrone, called: “The Insects Become Magnetic”. Evidently, it was the world premiere of this particular piece of music, which sounded very avant- garde to me. I did observe my sister’s knee was bouncing up and down about 55 beats per minute, just like she would do under the dining table when she wished she could be excused to go upstairs to study. My son, sitting on my right, slid into that “Hmm, cool,… something to dissect and categorize and analyze on various strata and levels. Yay! Caviar for my brain!” I couldn’t see my brother in law. He was sitting on the other side of my sister. But, I know he appreciates all kinds of music, too. We, the four of us were there, dutifully and anxiously taking in an afternoon of tantalization in tone and timbre.
First of all, I noticed the percussionists did many weird and wonderful things…I could have sworn there was a saw (hand saw for cutting down trees), only deduced by the sound that was presented. All the performers were doing things to their instruments in an unconventional way.. Most of the time. Very bizarre. The harpist’s harmonics could easily be seen being executed and heard above the sometimes “brilliant din”, which is how I’d describe the encompassing symphonic sound. How busy and industrious the timpanist and the whole orchestra were! I whispered an aside to my son, saying, “I bet the musicians, including that timpanist, are having fun playing this composition!” The bold bowing of the bass viols marched a demonstrative legion in unison and strength. (Locusts, perhaps?) The violas kind of mirrored them.(high pitched droning cicadas?) The violins used the tips of their bows a lot; creating a strangely at odds calm vs tedium mood. The cellos were the “meadow” of this musical depiction, providing a groundwork from which delightful, auditory discoveries would spring via the array of brass using giant mutes. (I was afraid someone would drop one of those silvery mutes, as they slid them into the bell of their tuba, baritone, or horn) and eventually slide them out again.) Lest I forget, I must mention those sneaky, persnickety oboes needling their way into this musical foray. Decidedly, I need to hear this composition again, because I spent the first half of the piece trying to figure out where the different sounds came from! As an overall afterthought I’d say the world premiere was rather fraught with frenzied alliteration, if that is possible in music… As I described, different groupings of instruments would echo the outcries of others. Most assuredly, it was a near visual of frenetic wings in flight, incessant buzzing, hovering notes that truly had no real melody line, only redundant intonation; which almost became too much to bear! I did like it, but I was hopeful for relief in sight toward the end. A truly modern expression, this is for sure!
Then, Mr. Carpenter stepped out all tall and young and rather a mystery. He received applause, and my expectation hung suspended for a moment because I was miffed that Carpenter did not play on the Disney Hall organ for the Poulenc composition. Instead, the stage hands rolled out his Traveling Digital Organ, which I read, has had additional, unique sounds built into it per his request. It was brought out and placed in front of the violas, a little to the left side of the stage. We could see his footwork and all the fingering and action with his hands. Quite striking! My sister later commented that she was impressed by the pedal footwork Carpenter did. His agility and command rather boggled her mind…and of course she would notice this, being a ballerina herself, for 12 years. Cameron Carpenter and the Philharmonic were performing Poulenc’s “Concerto in G for Organ, Strings, and Timpani”. It was a resolution for our ears, to hear something that “spoke in sentences with anticipated conclusion.” I did especially enjoy the “andante” part of the Poulenc piece. The rousing last movement was also deserving of a very grateful, GREAT applause. Mr. Carpenter returned for two deep bows in his midnight blue suit that made him look debonaire and quite slender. As the applause resounded, he humbly put his palms together as if he were in prayer, and gave a very generous, slow and low bow.
After receiving his thunderous applause, he came back to play a piece not on the program. It sounded like “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, but, I wasn’t sure. It seemed not as long as the “Toccata” I knew. Possibly, it was, and he just cut out some of the variations. I remember thinking, “Can one DO that to Bach? Oh my!”. In any case, I’d stake my last meal it was a Bach piece. Later, I learned it was Bach’s “Little Fugue in G”. Well, it showed off his flying fingers which at one point I thought flew off his wrists and tumbled onto the floor. His roaming feet however remained intact. From that display of showmanship he earned a three times call back for another bow-seeking standing ovation. You really have to see him in person. Have you?
After the necessary intermission, came the Saint-Saens.The Philharmonic performed “Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op. 78.” Well, I LOVED this piece! I can’t say anything specific other than when the patrons returned to their seats, the digital organ of Carpenter’s was gone from the stage. Up above the trombones and to the right of the timpanist was an organ console that manipulated the pipes and their valve slats of the famed Disney organ! At first CC was just sitting quietly content as “a peach in a basket”, and I didn’t even know what the wooden console was, because this time he was facing the main audience. Mind you, in the hall there is seating right under the pipe organ facing from above and behind the orchestra. I don’t think I would enjoy those seats. Half of the experience for me, is watching the performers show off their talent. Though, I suppose placing the console in this position gave that audience on the opposite end of the hall under the hall’s pipe organ, a chance to look down and see Carpenter do his magnificent keyboarding and pedal work.
I did not even realize the pipe organ was going to play, but, as Cameron Carpenter sat there so still, along with his comrades primed and ready for creative purpose, slowly an ever subtle organ line thread itself to the surface of the music. This went on for quite awhile, and then it seemed the strings and brass had their limelight in the telling of story. While being lulled by their gentle, quieted message, I felt a vibration in my seat. At first I thought, “Oh no, not an earthquake!” My sister didn’t flinch. Nor my son. He was hunkered down in pensive perusal of the music, and she was sitting leaning onto her husband’s shoulder with her knee still trembling now and then. She looked calm though. I decided to “let it go.”
Surprisingly, there was that vibration again! Next thing I knew, as the music played on, the vibration was manifest with a very baritone note that increased in decibels until OBVIOUSLY the pipe organ had “woken up!”. Now, I saw the valves open like shuttered slats horizontal and vertical, and the teal blue glow from behind was quite dramatic. I looked at the console and saw that Carpenter was indeed playing: I only knew by the sway of his shoulder from side to side in expression with the melody. Awesome!!! WOW, this was thrilling! More bold vibrating notes that your body didn’t just hear but FELT through to the bone. I thought bagpipes could stir the soul…well, no, not even in the same “vicinity” as the pipe organ! Now granted, I have heard many a pipe organ, but THIS was a pipe organ! No— it was like a mighty BEAST! Even though CC wasn’t situated up inside it, as Disney designed the organ seat to be, his console had to be connected to it and it just was an experience, I can tell you! The music was unique and riveting. Two good words: I believe.
Finally, after I knew who was doing what, and my ear noted a closer to more conventional notation start to emerge out of the behemoth beastly led first movement, I figuratively “leaned back” to match my actual sitting. Allowing the music to flow, I didn’t take stock any longer in who was doing what. I honestly don’t remember the main motif at this moment, however, I did know (I remembered) how it went when the theme first started to be introduced in the symphonic work. Excitedly, I mentally sailed back through time to Pepperdine University, to my little soundproof room in the Payson Library listening to a classical piece on the tape recorder. If only that professor knew how invaluable it was to teach us to recognize such things by ear as it was one of the greatest gifts I received in my collegiate education. Well, I “knew it” and it felt as familiar as a beloved sweater in which to envelope myself. I truly smiled inside as each movement was told via my much beloved chromaticism, especially dark, rich, depth reaching chromaticism. I am a sucker for that! How come? Do you think because my Uncle started me on the family organ when I was a youngster? Perhaps.
There were strains ethereal as well; so much so, that my eyes felt compelled to open and gaze upward at the curved beams covering the ceiling overhead. For the first time after all my many visits, I decided they looked like ruffling pages of music notation. This is because the warm colored wood has little round holes in it housing lights shining down to iluminate the floor. You mostly don’t see the bulbs, just the black round music note-like holes sporadically carved into the “bulging aloft on a breeze” bent wood beams. When I had that epiphany of what they looked like, tears effusive, came to awash me in sheer happiness and peace…it indeed felt as if I were sailing on an ocean. Quite serene, I tell you. Quite serene. Heaven bound, for sure.
Well, the symphony ended quite dramatically, and the conductor, Roderick Cox had had his dance on the podium. He wasn’t “my Dudamel”, but that’s okay, he engaged the musicians with similar gusto and fearless frenzy even…but uniquely him, quite proper, too! I believe this was his Southern California debut. I was impressed. Most salient learned thing about him? He undoubtedly LOVES music. Ka Ching! High Marks from Julianne!
Thus, that was the 2 pm concert in Los Angeles at the Disney Hall, November 18, 2018. I shall not forget.