THE RUFFATTI ORGAN & CAMERON CARPENTER at DAVIES HALL

A conversation with personal manager, Richard Torrence

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Richard Torrence is the personal manager to organist Cameron Carpenter and executive producer of his recently released combination CD/DVD, Cameron Live!. Their first collaboration on a CD, Pictures at an Exhibition, came about in 2006. It was recorded at Trinity Wall Street during the period Richard and his partner, Marshall Yaeger, represented Marshall & Ogletree – builder of the virtual pipe organ installed in the church in 2001. It was followed by another recording at Trinity in 2008 by Revolutionary, a combination CD and DVD released on the Telarc label. The result was the first and only Grammy nomination ever extended to a solo organist. It and the artist were suddenly famous and notorious, revered and envied, exposed and adored.

Last May, Cameron’s recital at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall was packed. Celebrity and controversy aside, many were curious how he would handle the hall’s grand Ruffatti organ. “They gave him 19 hours of rehearsal time,” says Richard. He opened with Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. The hall was bathed in languid sensuality. The audience went nuts. By the conclusion of the second selection, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E, it was clear we were in the presence of a master musician, a gracious entertainer, and that never before had the Ruffatti organ sounded so completely magnificent. “I’m sure it’s the best pipe organ in a concert hall in the U.S.”, Richard claims, “and one of the best – might be the best – in the world. Most “legendary” concert hall organs, such as Royal Albert Hall, leave a great deal to be desired vs. the Ruffatti at Davies.”

When we spoke, I wanted to know Cameron’s verdict on the Davies Ruffatti organ. I also wanted the latest on Cameron’s dedicated touring organ. When do we get to hear it?

Click on the photo to order on-line:

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Seán: Where is the instrument in terms of its present construction? Has it been completed?

Richard: No. We’ve done a great deal on the design and we know all its component parts. But we have to raise the money.

Seán: So, it’s all on paper.

Richard: Absolutely. I’ve done five of these before.

Seán: This is a total mystery to me. I can’t imagine designing an organ on paper and then having that fabricated into a working instrument.

Richard: Cameron does his own drawings. We have console builders and software people. I’m sure there are a hundred companies in the world who either build organs or buy organs from supply houses and assemble them. Organs are no longer constructed by a single builder. Ruffatti, more or less, is a self-contained builder although they don’t build their own keyboards and console systems. Organs are put together from different companies all over the world and then installed in a particular concert hall or church.

Seán: Do you have a target date for all this?

Richard: We would like to have the money raised by the end of the summer. That would mean the organ would be finished by early spring.

Seán: What is the ideal place for its debut?

Richard: We know where we want to do it in New York. It would be in one of the halls of the Lincoln Center complex, the Allen Room. It has magnificent views of Central Park and seats about 460 including the cabaret seating. We haven’t made any commitments yet, but the goal would be to do it in the spring. I was in the special events field for many years, so it seems natural for me to put together a project like this.

Seán: My partner Tom and I are still reeling from Cameron’s May 2nd concert at Davies. We sat in on his rehearsals during those two days before the concert. From first touch on the pedal through all the hours of manipulating and working through the instrument, how did his choice of repertoire finally come together to make this concert such an artistic triumph?

Richard: You know from talking with Cameron that “it’s the artist, not the organ”. He doesn’t get terribly involved with commentary about organs. He tries to figure out if it will work to play for an audience. I told him during rehearsals that I thought it was the best organ I’d ever heard him play. His comment was, “Better than Trinity Wall Street?” Because the organ at Trinity is the easiest, smoothest organ imaginable to play. It’s a big double organ – it’s huge. I said, “Absolutely.” Trinity Wall Street has some controls and some aspects of it that don’t exist in any other organ. It also has some rather luscious acoustics. But, it doesn’t have any good reeds. The Ruffatti at Davies is the most satisfying organ I’ve ever heard, certainly in a concert hall. Last November I produced a concert for Cameron at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin – which has one of the legendary Aeolian-Skinners in New York – and is generally considered to have one of the best acoustics in New York. But the amount of color that’s available on the Ruffatti organ is simply amazing. It’s the use of those aliquots, the unusual fractional stops, the brilliance of the reeds, and the voicing. Trinity is basically an 85-stop organ double. But the double doesn’t really give you “double”. It’s not an organ that you can do exactly what you want with it.

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Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York

Richard: The Ruffatti is 147 ranks. It will do anything, I swear. The one drawback to the Ruffatti is that it’s 26 years old. And what has happened to console-building in the last 10–15 years has been shockingly successful. I’m not sure how many general pistons he had which would control the whole organ, but let’s be generous and say twenty – that would be a pretty huge organ. The way the console was built – which I’m sure was Ted Allen Worth’s contribution – the two crescendo pedals, one orchestral and one standard, had lights. Thirty lights on each side – so that you could know and go to a light and set a combination action at that point. In effect, it’s an organ with eight generals on it. That is pretty amazing. However, our organs today easily have thousands of generals. Cameron wouldn’t normally ever have to change the combination action on, say, the Trinity organ – even as big as it is – for a two hour program. He did have to change it for this concert because he wanted to do other things. Then the other thing that is usually available on an organ built in the last 10–15 years are what are called “sequences”. That means you can set up your combination action and tell the organ what to do in a certain sequence. Instead of having to remember that it’s 18 or 24, you can “remember it”. You just press NEXT. It takes you through your registration program for your concert. It’s a terribly handy device. I would say that well over half of the organs Cameron plays on have sequences because they either have a new console or it’s a new organ. With this Ruffatti you have a 26-year-old console. It’s a wonderful console. He didn’t have any problem with the action. As Cameron says, there are always three things he has to deal with. The first is the action. Is it responsive? Is it right there for you when you need it? A good organ has a greater repetition rate than a Steinway piano. A bad organ can be sluggish and doesn’t react. He recently played a huge, extraordinarily concert organ. And he said the Revolutionary Etude was a joke – because all the 16th-notes came out as 8th-notes. So, it’s a very difficult thing if the organ is not fast. Cameron likes a fast organ as did Ted and Virgil. Ted was the principal consultant to Ruffatti for its entire time in this country and he got the maximum out of them. The Ruffatti at Davies Hall is the maximum.

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The Ruffatti at Davies Symphony Hall

Richard: Cameron then looks for color – that’s something he requires. He looks for different and beautiful reeds. He looks for the ability to make strange combinations of colors. You’re dealing with a 147 stops on that organ. I’m no mathematician, but the number of permutations is incredible. Cameron’s ear and intelligence is so far beyond anyone else I’ve ever known, except Ted and Virgil who were the great colorists during their period of time. Cameron has more to work with. I’m sure that organ has more color than he has ever seen before. Not only is it a hefty organ, it has all those little fractional sounds. For something like his opening number – Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun – the sounds were unearthly. The third thing he requires is expressiveness. On his tours, he occasionally gets an organ that is just horrible – an organ that doesn’t have any expression: boxes, chambers. Now that’s awful, because you’re just flat-out all the time. But with this organ, they are extremely effective. So, the three things he requires to say ‘I can really do my utmost’ – are all there. Plus, it’s a big organ. St. Mary the Virgin has 92, this has 147 – half again larger. It’s also in a concert hall. Cameron greatly prefers concert hall acoustics.

Seán: A difference of 55 stops sounds like a huge number to me. Considering how that kind of increase effects the stream of possibilities you just mentioned – how does the designer ultimately determine what to leave out?

Richard: First, you know you have a certain physical space that you can use or not use. Then you figure out how much you can get into it. Finally, how much money do you have? Then you try to design an organ – whether it be small, medium, or large – with a great deal of integrity.

Seán: After a while I can’t help noticing stuff like posture and other demands the organ makes on the body no matter what you play. And sitting for hours on that wooden bench! I can’t imagine practicing – with my butt on a hard piece of wood for hours at a time – and coming out of it with any sense of comfort. How does Cameron do it?

Richard: Well, he’s got a nice butt. He’s been doing this since he was six years old. It’s his nature.

Seán: Did you influence Cameron in his final choice of repertoire for the concert?

Richard: Absolutely not. I never do that. Occasionally he will say, “Richard, what should I start with?” He didn’t ask that night because he knew what he was going to start with. I’m his manager. I’m interested in the messages he wants to get across. I drive the business, I worry about the marketing. I work all the things that will allow him to get to the public in the best and the most constructive way. But, I don’t tell him what to play or how to play. I thought it was the best Ruffatti I ever heard. It is cutting new cloth. It’s saying, “I’m what you expected, but I’m much more.”

Seán: You know his repertoire and have heard him play it many times. Was there a piece that stood out to you as being more flattering, more brilliant, perhaps more informative?

Richard: There was one piece that blew me away – the Liszt piece, Funerailles. I told Cameron it would never sound better on another organ. He said, “I agree.”

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CAMERON CARPENTER

Seán: We heard him work through a number of passages from it during rehearsal. When they came up during performance – and by now we really know what to listen for – the effect was sensational.

Richard: Pieces such as the Funerailles, Afternoon of a Faun, and Schubert’s Erlkönig – each one of them required hours of work because he was going for the maximum. And he had the maximum to work with. They require so much registration. Pieces like the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E, Prelude and Fugue in G are much easier to deal with because they are a formalized registration. I sat near you during the rehearsals of the Funerailles and thought, “I’ve never heard an organ that could do that.”

Seán: During our last interview Cameron mentioned that he had included Afternoon of a Faun on the new DVD. I’m familiar with the piece and appreciate it at the Ballet. I also ponder the uproar around its Paris debut and the furor over the ballet’s overt sexual energy – and the consequences for everyone who has danced the role since. It’s a perfect a vehicle for Cameron. Come the final heartbeat, the audience was cheering. I know there were a lot of organists in attendance that night. I’m sure Cameron knew he was playing for a very savvy, very surprised and appreciative crowd.

Richard: To see an audience that big in that hall – for an organ concert – was simply wonderful. He couldn’t help but understand that the audience was with him. And they asked for – what, four or five encores?

Seán: I counted five.

Richard: I was with him in Moscow and was shocked when he got eight. In St. Petersburg, they would not let him go. There is a kind of joke in St. Petersburg which is: “No standing ovations.” Cameron got six. And twelve encores. I would bet that even Horowitz never got twelve encores.

Seán: Speaking of Horowitz – Classic Arts Showcase recently ran a video of him playing his Carmen Variations. I have watched Cameron’s rendition on the Revolutionary DVD so many times – I did not realize how accustomed I’ve become to his transcription. The contrast between that and the relative simplicity of the piano transcription – plus watching Horowitz in live performance with it! – was astonishing to me all over again. Cameron’s treatment is unbelievably brilliant and challengin. His performance is complete genius.

Richard: Cameron is an amazing talent. Working as closely as I did with Virgil for 17 years, and with Ted, and having been around Pierre Cochereau, organist of Notre Dame – all wonderful people – Cameron is quite a bit ahead of that.

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Click here to order Cameron Carpenter’s latest: Cameron Live!

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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