Cameron Carpenter brings the glitter and the gold to Savannah Music Festival opening night

“Good Lord!”

That was the not-so-subtle reaction of the man behind me when Cameron Carpenter appeared in the organ loft at Christ Church Episcopal here in Savannah on Wednesday night for the first show of the 2013 Savannah Music Festival.

Carpenter hadn’t even touched the instrument, but it was hard not to feel a surge of excitement at the very appearance of the lanky, high-cheekboned Carpenter, who had shaved his head into some sort of combination Mohawk/mullet/military buzz cut and was wearing a gorgeous black kimono over a white t-shirt and baggy black slacks.

In remarks later, Carpenter noted the peculiar nature of the organ itself, which in its common placement in churches seems to suggest that it’s “ashamed” by its player.

Even though his back was to pretty much everyone and even though some in the main floor pews could only see Carpenter via a projection screen near the altar, the organist still physically dominated the space.

And it wasn’t because of the clothes — pageantry will only get you so far.

Carpenter started with Liszt and then moved on to Bach — at times using his feet on the pedals take the place of cellos. Next came Chopin etudes, which sounded especially provocative with the throaty, sometimes-carnivalesque tones of the organ. Carpenter noted that playing Chopin on an organ produces “exponential benefits that accrue keyboard-wise.”

I made the wise choice of sitting in the center of the front row of one of the side balconies. So to my right, I could see via the projection a closeup of the organ as Carpenter played, but to my left there was the musician himself, at times a blur of motion and energy. Combined with the slowly fading natural light of Christ Church, the sheer visuals were stunning.

I was a little sorry when Carpenter took an intermission — I’ve come to like the 75-90 minute shows that never stop — but then I thought he must need to rest after such glorious labor. But then I thought, no, he needs to change outfits.

So for the shorter second set he entered in glittery black pants and brilliant jacket. My neighbor thought it was Versace. It reminded me of something that might have been worn on stage by one of the members of Santana.

The second half of the program began with Scott Joplin’s “Weeping Willow”, and from there moved to a piece by French organist Marcel Dupre, who died in 1971. And finally improvisation — an exploration of the “intuitive and the felt vs. the thought out and the planned.”

After the show, Carpenter stood in the lobby for a long time, chatting with his new fans, posing for photos, and generally disarming everyone with his directness and politeness.

The evening was a tremendous way to open the Savannah Music Festival’s stellar first weekend.

Here’s a video of Carpenter playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, one of the pieces performed at the SMF: