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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Christopher Houlihan Salutes the 150th Birthday of an Underservedly Obscure Organ Music Icon

In the classical organ music demimonde, Louis Vierne is an iconic presence. The epic grandeur and frequent venom of his organ symphonies have seldom been matched, let alone surpassed. His life was plagued by struggle and tragedy. Born legally blind, he became an awardwinning violinist while still in his teens before switching to the king of the instruments. His wife left him for his best friend. He lost family members in World War I. After the war, he was forced to go on concert tour to raise money to repair the organ at Notre Dame in Paris, where he would remain until his death. And on his final day there, Vierne collapsed in the console and fell onto the low bass pedal. The organ rumbled louder and louder until someone finally went in to check on him and found him there dead.

Yet outside of the insular pipe organ world, Vierne is little-known…and Christopher Houlihan is determined to change that. This blog was unfortunately not there when he played the entire Vierne symphonic cycle in New York back in June of 2012, but fortunately much of that was recorded, and you can catch not only some of the highlights but also a lot of fascinating background when the organist celebrates the 150th anniversary of the troubled French composer’s birth with a series of webcasts starting this October 5.

There’s plenty of material for both general audiences and hardcore organ geeks. On October 5 at 7 PM, Houlihan interviews Phillip Truckenbrod, whose recent memoir Organists and Me covers a half century of managing some of the loudest musicians on the planet.

The next evening, October 6, Houlihan chats with the brilliant Notre Dame organist Olivier Latry about the horrific fire and ongoing reconstruction of the organ there. On October 7, Houlihan offers a demonstration of the famous Trinity College organ in Hartford Connecticut, and on October 8, he plays a deliciously dynamic program there which includes Vierne’s majestic Symphony No. 4 as well as shorter pieces ranging from his celestial Clair de Lune to the sparkling, playfully evocative Naïades. Other webcasts in the works include concert footage from Houlihan’s landmark 2012 Vierne performances as well as an interview with Vierne biographer Rollin Smith, the first American to play the Vierne symphonic cycle.

September 28, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Ansgar Wallenhorst at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/28/07

Ansgar Wallenhorst is a German organist and a devotee of improvisation, tonight proving himself in the same league as Olivier Latry or Pierre Cochereau. He gave the beautiful old Skinner organ here a workout it probably hasn’t had in years, using seemingly every pipe and every registration, no matter how obscure. Perhaps the glockenspiel felt neglected, but otherwise the venerable old instrument proved it can still whip up a storm for the ears. In almost 45 minutes, Wallenhorst played just two pieces, the first being Franz Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam. Liszt is famous for being the Pedro Martinez of the organ, i.e. having big hands and long fingers which helped facilitate the long jumps and massive chords which are his trademark. But melody is all too frequently an afterthought in his music: flights of dexterity and dazzling musicianship very often take precedence over content. Not so with this piece. It’s a flood warning, echoing back to Buxtehude and his contemporaries with its warm, major-key passages playing against eerie minor key melodies, macabre chromatics and tritones. By the time Wallenhorst wrapped it up with a scorching, fortissimo conclusion, he’d aired out the trumpet in the church’s ceiling as well as every rank in the flutes, reeds and the lowest, rumbling, subterranean pedal pipes. The intensity of the performance matched the knotty demands of the piece itself.

Then Wallenhorst played an improvisation in tribute to the great French composer Jean Langlais, using the letters in his name as a guide to chord choices. The main organ here is known for its beautifully trebly French colors as well as its darkly majestic sound. There were echoes of Langlais’ gleaming, dramatic, center-stage melodicism in Wallenhorst’s extemporizations, but the piece also had a uniquely individual style that saw the organist once again utilizing every stop available. Some of the passages he played were pianissimo to the point of being almost inaudible; other times, he’d fire a volley or two down from the trumpets and follow with that call with a response from the lower registers. Echoing the Liszt, he made liberal use of tritones and let them ring out in a devil’s choir. For once, there was a good crowd in attendance, rapt all the way through the piece’s happily conclusive, vastly satisfying, full-blast finale. One last time: if you are a classical music fan, miss this concert series at your peril.

November 1, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments