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The BPO meets punk and the experience is joyous

"Got your earplugs?" an usher asked at Kleinhans Music Hall on Friday.

That is not a question you hear too often before a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Classics concert.

But then nothing is normal about this weekend's event. Cameron Carpenter, the punk prince of the organ, is in town -- Mohawk haircut, sparkling shoes, custom-built organ and all. The massive instrument commands center stage, and around the perimeter loom big amps and speakers, lighted for effect.

The appearance of the 35-year-old phenomenon was prefaced by the briefest of orchestral introductions. Music Director JoAnn Falletta conducted the BPO's brass in the four-minute Fanfare to "La Peri" by Paul Dukas. It set a tone of solemnity and suspense.

Emerging in what looked from a distance like denim, Carpenter then joined the orchestra for Poulenc's 1938 Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani.

It didn't matter if you knew the piece or not. It reached out and grabbed you. A screen overhead showed Carpenter's hands on the organ's five manuals. You could see when he was adjusting the stops, when his hands flew from one keyboard to another. I'll bet kids who like video games would like this concert. It's full of mechanical marvels.

The music brimmed with wit as well as wonder. Riffs and melodies zipped from the organ to the orchestra and back again. On the organ, a phrase could be repeated multiple times and be colored differently each time. Carpenter, playing from memory, managed it all smoothly and with aplomb, against the virtuosic backdrop of the BPO.

Next came a different journey, Bach's magnificent Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. Carpenter gave a touching speech to introduce it. It's evident he has a deep love for Bach.

The music, too, made that clear. It was fascinating to watch Carpenter navigate Bach's paths, adding embellishments along the way. The organ he plays doesn't sound as warm as the church pipe organs and Wurlitzer theater organs we are used to. But there is beauty in the coolness, and the transcendent logic of Bach shone through. The organ also attained a deeply satisfying volume, and in the vibrations, you could feel the music.

The stunning ending brought listeners to their feet, and Carpenter rewarded us with a magnificent encore -- his own arrangement of the  Prelude to Wagner's "Die Meistersinger."

This was old-fashioned showmanship, and the perfect chaser to the brainiac Bach. Carpenter embellished freely and added schmaltz, too, when he felt like it. The famous Prize Song appeared as if out of the stratosphere, the marches had the kind of comic pomp that Wagner would have loved, and there were many eloquent surprise sonic effects. The organ played up Wagner's colorful counterpoint. What a joyous experience.

And talk about joy. The Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony" has rung out before in Kleinhans Music Hall, but probably not like this.

Here's where we needed Carpenter's high-tech instrument. It easily filled the big space. At first the sound was subtle, just adding a slight tint to the orchestra, but you could feel its reverberations. Then, slowly, it conquered. Falletta paced the piece nicely, so all the performers seemed to be holding their thunder until the overwhelming finale. What luck to have a conductor and soloist both with such a fine-tuned sense for drama.

The big blast of an ending knocked you over. And even then, it wasn't over.

Carpenter gave another solo encore -- the lightning-quick Gigue from Bach's French Suite No. 5. "Gigue" means "jig," and with his sparkling feet flying, Carpenter looked as if he were dancing. At one point, he put both hands on the bench and played only with his feet. Feet flying, arms by his side, he looked like an Irish dancer.

He followed that showpiece with an original improvisation.

What a concert this was  -- not only great music, but great theater. Complete with a touch of mystery.

How does Carpenter do what he does? The close-ups only made it more impressive. Sometimes the sound would change even when he didn't appear to be switching manuals. Sometimes he would play two keyboards simultaneously with a single hand. It's mind-boggling.

The adventure repeats at 8 p.m. March 11 at Kleinhans Music Hall.

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