Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.

With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.

He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.

“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.

Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.

There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.

Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.

The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut

Advertisements

September 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Plays an Exhilarating, Insightful Program in Chelsea

Organist Christopher Houlihan has world-class chops and the kind of passion that most people who tackle playing the king of the instruments have in abundance. Houlihan’s strength is that he’s able to communicate that passion, not just with fast fingers and feet, but by engaging the audience with plenty of insight into both craft and history. At his Chelsea concert last night at Holy Apostles Church, he recounted the tragic tale of composer Louis Vierne, who collapsed at the console at Notre Dame and landed on the very bottom pedal, serenading the audience with an ominous drone for more than a minute until someone figured out something wasn’t right and discovered his lifeless body. That incident is well known to fans of the organ repertoire; Houlihan also shared several other gloomy facts about the composer, whose symphonic cycle he played to much acclaim both in the organ demimonde and beyond it a couple of years ago. And then he followed with three movements from Vierne’s Symphony No. 4.

Houlihan explained that these would be somewhat uncharacteristic for the typically turbulent, sometimes wrathful Vierne, and they were: a mutedly balletesque take of the Menuet, a lively yet meticulous romp through the Romance and then the finale, which returned with a roar to emotional terrain more familiar to the composer.

Bookending the concert with pieces by Bach made sense, considering the darkly baroque colors of the organ. Houlihan described the popular Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 as a series of kaleidoscopic variations that went off on innumerable interesting tangents, then backed that up with a rippling, steady attack, making imaginative use of high woodwind voicings on the first part of the fugue. In a clever bit of programming, he also bookended a transcription of Brahms’ choral prelude No. 11 – the composer’s saturnine final work – with an early piece, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, an ambitious exercise in counterpoint.

Houlihan likened Henry Martin‘s Prelude and Fugue in B Flat Major to “what Gershwin would have done with a prelude and fugue,” and he was right on the money with that too. The world premiere of a commission from Michael Barone of NPR’s Pipedreams, from a series of twelve of those pieces in every key, after Bach, it turned out to be an intriguingly orchestrated series of circling phrases that eventually loosened with a ragtime-inflected flair. At the end of the program, the crowd – an especially large one – gave Houlihan a standing ovation and wouldn’t let up until he’d come back for the encore. The organ world needs more ambassadors like him.

June 19, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Explains His Marathon Celebration of the Great, Underrated Composer Louis Vierne

This coming June 2 at the Church of the Ascension, 5th Ave. at 10th St., renowned organist Christopher Houlihan plays symphonic works by legendary, cutting-edge French composer Louis Vierne to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne’s dramatic death. At 3 PM Houlihan plays Symphonies No. 1, 3 and 5; and at 7:30 PM, Symphonies No. 2, 4 and 6. Houlihan managed to take some time away from rehearsals to shed some light on this herculean endeavor.

Lucid Culture: First of all, congratulations for creating www.vierne2012.com. As you’ll remember, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times created a stir with his “ten best composers of alltime” list last year. It inspired me to come up with one of my own, and I picked Louis Vierne as one of my top ten. Why do you think such an extraordinary and eclectic composer isn’t better known?

Christopher Houlihan: Good choice! If Vierne is remembered at all, he is thought of as a composer of organ music. He certainly wrote some of his greatest music for the organ, but that only makes up a very small part of his output, actually. I’ve gotten to know some of his other compositions while I’ve been preparing the six symphonies and have to say – his other music is stunning. The Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet are particular favorites of mine. I think the reason he’s largely unknown is because his musical language was fairly conservative by early 20th century standards. He identified more with the style of Franck than Debussy. But the musical world of Paris surrounding Vierne was hearing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Rite of Spring. Vierne’s music is spectacular, but wasn’t as shocking as the other music of his time. That being said, nothing like these symphonies had ever been written for the organ before!

LC: Would you agree that Vierne’s career mirrors the paradigm shifting from Romanticism to Modernism just as much as, say, Debussy’s or Ravel’s, both of whom were his contemporaries?

CH: I’d actually say Vierne was firmly planted in Romanticism and not much of a modernist. His music definitely becomes more and more chromatic as he ages, but it is always rooted in tonality. His musical structures are always very clear. I think it just took organ music a lot longer to catch up with Romanticism than the rest of the music world – after Bach, there was very little significant organ music written until Mendelssohn and Franck in the mid-nineteenth century!

LC: For those who aren’t familiar with the organ demimonde and its history, can you explain the rather grisly events of June 2, 1937 in the organ console at Notre-Dame in Paris?

CH: After the clergy of Notre-Dame decided that organ recitals weren’t going to be allowed in the cathedral any longer, a “final” recital was planned. Vierne finished playing his Triptyque, then was programmed to perform an improvisation – something French organists are famous for. He set up the organ’s stops…then he had a heart attack! His foot landed on low E, and everyone in the audience thought it was the start of the improvisation, but he had actually died! Because the story of his death is so legendary, I think it’s very appropriate to commemorate the 75th anniversary with a celebration of his music. I’m constantly reminded not to reenact his death as well!

LC: Vierne had a tough life – a gentle soul who was practically blind since childhood, who lost family and friends in World War I, was forced to tour the US to raise funds to repair the organ at Notre Dame after the war…the list goes on. To what extent do you think Vierne transcended his suffering?

CH: Vierne was used to overcoming setbacks: he learned to play the organ despite being blind! The organ is probably more complicated than any other solo instrument, and that’s if you can see! So, I think he transcended his suffering a great deal. Sure, in a lot of his music one can really sense this was a man who knew suffering, but there is almost always extreme joy and beauty alongside the angst. One can’t hear the Final to the Sixth Symphony and think Vierne was anything but an optimist.

LC: Much of Vierne’s work has been described as diabolical, especially Symphony No. 3 – which you’re playing on June 2 here in New York. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?

CH: Much of it is diabolical, but that’s really only gives half of the picture. His music is also very sensual, playful, silly, and joyful. Vierne’s music explores the full range of human emotion. But when it is diabolical, it doesn’t just rain, it pours! The Final to Symphony 4 is about as wild as it gets.

LC: You’re going to play the entire set of Vierne symphonies – all six – at the Church of the Ascension in the West Village on June 2. Isn’t that a bit much? That’s an enormous amount of music by any standard. The Beatles and the Doors would play four sets a night on the Reeperbahn or at the Fillmore, Muddy Waters would play all night in Chicago juke joints, but what you’re doing is vastly more demanding. What kind of preparation does one have to go through to pull this off?

CH: Sometimes I think I’m a little crazy for doing this, yes! It is a lot of music, in total shortly under four hours worth. But, I chose to perform the symphonies in two halves, odd numbers at 3 PM and even numbers at 7:30 PM. This way, each recital is totally digestible and gives the listener a taste of the changes in Vierne’s style over the course of his life. Preparing this music for performance hasn’t been easy but has been worth every sacrifice: this music deserves to be heard.

LC: Why a fullscale symphony cycle? Why not include some of Vierne’s shorter pieces for variation? Clair de Lune, that gorgeous lullaby, maybe one of the clock chime variations – I’m thinking the Longpont Cathedral, perhaps?

CH: Of course Vierne wrote a lot more for organ than just the Symphonies, but they are really his most monumental works for the instrument. The 24 Fantasy Pieces are sort of like the Debussy Preludes for Piano, some with equally whimsical titles: Naïdes (Water Nymphs), Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), Feux Follets (Will o’ the Wisp), Étoile du soir (Night Star)… these titles almost make you forget the sadness in Vierne’s life!

LC: Are you recording these performances so that we can enjoy them later?

CH: I eventually would love to record the symphonies for a CD release, but don’t think I’ll be releasing any live recordings of these marathons.

LC: New York has many world-famous organs: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue and “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. have tremendous vintage instruments whose tonalities are well-suited to the French Romantic repertoire. Why the Church of the Ascension?

CH: The brand-new organ at the Church of the Ascension is totally unique among instruments in New York and is just perfect for the music of Vierne. It was installed last year, built by the French organ builder Pascal Quorin. It is the only French-built organ in New York City and one of only two in the country. There are certainly no shortage of wonderful North-American built organs here in the city, but this instrument has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that I love. You could even say it does more than just speak with a French accent – it speaks French fluently.

LC: Can I ask you what drew you to the organ initially – and what drew you to Vierne?

CH: I think initially I was drawn to the mechanics and extreme sounds of the organ, as many people are: the buttons, pedals, and keyboards, and the very quiet and very loud sounds the instrument can often produce. What sustains my interest isn’t a love of “the organ,” which can’t create beauty on its own, but my love of the music that’s been written for it and the opportunities I’ve had to share this music with audiences.

I can’t explain why I’ve been drawn to Vierne’s music, but I know what I love about it: it is colorful, dynamic, exciting, and packed with emotion. These symphonies, I think, are not what people expect when they think of organ music, especially because they don’t expect organ music to be so personal. But Vierne’s music is about as intimate as it gets.

LC: To what degree are you preaching to the converted? What I mean to say is that there are those of us who can never get enough Louis Vierne – but most other classical music fans have no idea of who he was or why his music is so relevant and vital to this day. Do you really think you can connect beyond the Pipedreams crowd, such that it is?

CH: I can’t help but think of an interview with the late American organist Robert Glasgow, who was asked – on Pipedreams! – how an audience unfamiliar with the Symphonie Romane of Widor – who was Vierne’s teacher – should approach listening to the work. He simply said: “Don’t worry about whether it’s coming from the organ or not; it’s just music.” And Vierne’s music communicates, plain and simple. I can’t tell you how many times after playing a recital I’ve heard: “This was my first organ concert and I had no idea it was going to be this exciting!” Somehow organ recitals have gained the reputation of being boring, but music like Vierne’s is anything but boring. I know anyone coming to this music for the first time will be very pleasantly surprised at what they find.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments