★★★☆☆ Flamboyant theatrics deliver a spectacle that often cries out for a bit more subtlety.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 12, 2015

For Sydney chamber music lovers the intimate Utzon Series, curated by Yarmila Alfonzetti, is heavily marked in red on their fridge calendars. The Opera House’s 200-seater Utzon Room, with its dazzling views of Sydney Harbour on one windowed side and Utzon’s own tapestry forming a warmly colourful counterpoint to the angled concrete ceiling on the other, is the perfect place to hear and watch international artists almost within touching distance.

But the season finale went out in a blaze of glitzy Gothic splendour, and more than a hint of the circus, when American organist Cameron Carpenter took over the concert hall for one of his long-awaited high-energy shows.

The 34-year-old ex-Juilliard School student – and incidentally a child musical prodigy who appeared as a boy soprano at the New York Met – manages to combine extraordinary virtuosity and feel for the classical repertoire with a pop star persona. Sporting a minimal black mohawk, jacket and snazzy T-shirt and shiny light grey slacks, it was his footwear which captured the most attention – pair of black, soft leather boots with Cuban heels and enough silver sequins to make Liberace swoon.

Offering a simultaneous fusion of chamber intimacy and grand spectacle, Carpenter’s feet and hands were captured by static cameras, projected on to two huge flat screens at the back of the stage. The sight of his feet weaving across the pedals was mesmeric, especially in the two pieces by J.S. Bach which were the highlights of the night. It was a case of once seen, never forgotten.

Carpenter started off in the organ loft, giving the Opera House pipe organ a rigorous workout with the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

Spectacular though this was it was merely a pipe opener (pun intended) for Carpenter’s true reason for his visit – his International Touring Organ (ITO), a digital organ with its sampled sounds built to his own design. This enables Carpenter to take the “king of instruments” on a one-man rock band-style tour.

Completed last year, the rig, complete with five manuals and all the requisite pedals, foot levers, stops and buttons, takes three hours to set up on stage. Our introduction to it was Carpenter’s arrangement of the Act 1 Prelude from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

This came as a bit of a jolt after the conventional familiarity of Bach and for this reviewer at least it was not entirely successful. Full-bore pedal notes boomed and there were balance problems. The aim was to show the ITO’s phenomenal range of orchestral sounds and effects but in the process subtlety and nuance were sacrificed.

Marcel Dupre’s Variations sur un vieux Noel fared much better, as did Scriabin’s Piano sonata No.4, its mystery and eroticism lending itself to Carpenter’s arrangement.

But best of all was Bach’s French Suite No.5, which as Carpenter pointed out was the composer as “secular as he allowed himself to be”.  In a virtuosic display of coordination the soloist captured the humour of a work which shows the composer in an uncharacteristically unbuttoned mode.

The bouree had Carpenter’s legs and feet working like a seated Michael Flatley of Riverdance fame and the joyful, boisterous gigue was a true showstopper. This was a concert where an exceptionally talented and driven performer, one might even say entertainer, juggled his love of the conventional repertoire with his flair for the theatrical. The audience was impressively large and mainly enthusiastic so Carpenter is succeeding in his quest to open up the extraordinary magic of the Organ to a wider public.

But oompah and vaudeville won out in the end with his Mighty Wurlitzer-style encores of John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, followed by a George Gershwin medley which included Strike Up The Band, complete with cymbal clashes, and I’ve Got A Crush On You. It may have lacked subtlety, but this was musical chutzpah on an impressive scale.

Cameron Carpenter appears in concert at Meblourne’s Recital Centre, November 18.

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