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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Randall Harlow Puts Out a Wild, Epic Triple Album of Spine-Tingling Recent Concert Organ Music

With his epic new triple album Organon Novus – streaming at SpotifyRandall Harlow seeks to restore the king of the instruments to its rightful place in concert music. Current generations may not realize how prominent a role the organ has played in American history. A hundred years ago, pretty much every major concert hall – not to mention city hall, baseball stadium, movie theatre, skating rink, funeral parlor, wedding venue, even the occasional department store – had its own organ. Harlow’s criteria in selecting the material here is to focus on American composers who are not organists themselves.

He explains that rationale in the liner notes: “As a performer I am particularly attracted to works by non-organist composers, as they tend to refreshingly avoid the well-worn gestures and techniques oft overused by incorrigible organists. This is not to say there aren’t compelling and original works composed by organists, particularly by those whose professional compositional activities extend beyond the organ and choral worlds, but works by non-organists such as these here often present novel and challenging figurations and elicit compelling new sounds from the instrument.” That’s something of an understatement. Harlow plays them on the titanically colorful E.M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the the University of Chicago.

The music here runs the gamut as eclectically as any other instrumental album released over the last several years. If you want an in-depth survey of some of the most interestingly diverse works for organ since 1990, you can’t do any better than this. The majority of them are on the short side as organ works go, generally under ten minutes, many of them under five. The dynamic and timbral ranges are as vast as any fan of the demimonde could want, from whispery nebulosity to all-stops-out pandemonium. The quietest pieces are the most minimalist.

Harlow opens with an alternately showy and calmly enveloping Libby Larsen study in bell-like tones which he calls an “all-limbs-on-deck work for the performer.” He closes with Aaron Travers‘ Exodus, an oceanic partita once considered unplayable for its complexity, wildly churning menace, leaps and whirling vortices. It will take your breath away.

In between we get Matt Darriau‘s crescendoing, anthemically circling Diapason Fall, which sounds nothing like his adventures in klezmer or Balkan music. Harlow follows Michael Daugherty‘s stormy, pulsing An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance with Roberto Sierra‘s Fantasia Cromática and its dervish dance of an outro.

He turns a Christian Wolff piece for either organ or celesta into a coy dialogue betweeen that relatively rare organ stop and the high flutes. Then he improvises against the rattle of dried beans and macaroni atop percussionist Matt Andreini’s snare and tom-tom in a droning, hypnotic Alvin Lucier soundscape. A “hair-raising study in how not to play the organ” by John Zorn, contrastingly careening and quietly macabre, concludes the second disc.

Other standouts from among the total of 25 composers represented here include John Anthony Lennon‘s allusively Doors-influenced, cascading Misericordia; a towering, picturesque Rocky Mountain tableau by George Walker; Samuel Adler‘s purposeful, tightly coiling Schoenberg homage From Generation to Generation; and Joan Tower’s delightfully blustery, aptly titled Ascent. The portents of the penultimate number, Lukas Foss’ Hiroshima-themed triptych War and Peace are among the album’s most riveting moments. Harlow attacks each of these pieces with equal parts meticulousness and passion. Even better, there’s a sequel in the works.

November 29, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Gail Archer Brings Concert Organ Music Back to New York with a Rare, Fascinating Ukrainian Program

Gail Archer is not only a trailblazing organist and rescuer of undeservedly obscure repertoire. She’s also been responsible for some of the most entertaining and often rewardingly unorthodox organ music programming in this city in recent years. So it was no surprise to see her back at the console Saturday afternoon, playing what has to be one of the first, quite possibly the very first organ concert for a public audience in this city since Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator. While the turnout at St. John Nepomucene Church just west of Tudor City was very sparse, this being Rosh Hashanah, Archer and the church’s very personable staff deserve immense credit for their commitment to bringing back the arts.

What was most immediately striking about the program – essentially a reprise of Archer’s new album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – was how loud it was. She took full advantage of the 1956 Kilgen organ and the space’s impressive amount of natural reverb throughout a robustly seamless performance of mostly rather midrangey material.

Ukraine has a deep tradition of choral music, but less so with the organ, and as a result most of the works on the bill were 20th century vintage. Much as it was glorious to simply be able to see an organ concert in Manhattan again, this was a pensive glory. There was no Lisztian ostentatiousness, nor much reliance on the many more colors that composers from where the organ has more of a history might have brought into the music. Rather, the similarity of the timbres and registrations made for plenty of strong segues. And it’s a fair bet that Archer was premiering much of this material, whether simply for New York, or for all of North America.

What stood out from hearing Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare live rather than on the album? The echo effects – a favorite concert device for Archer – and the prominence of the lows. His Benedictus: Song of Zachariah seemed much more distinctly Romantic, by comparison. The initial, blustery foreshadowing of Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements brought to mind Charles Widor; its stormy bursts over lingering resonance later on evoked the work of contemporary composer Naji Hakim.

Archer surpassed her already colorful album version of Viktor Goncharenko’s Fantasia with a steady dynamism, and later brought out more of a lilt in the cadences of Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona. The remaining two pieces on the bill were the most rapturous, beginning with the dark, slowly expanding majesty of Mykola Kolessa’s Passacaglia. Iwan Kryschanowskij’s arguably even more mysterious, symphonic Fantasie was an enveloping yet relentlessly restless choice of coda, Archer building starry ambience and broodingly stairstepping intensity amidst the swirl and pedalpoint, to a deliciously articulated series of chromatic themes right before the end.

The monthly series of organ concerts at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. continues on Oct 17 at 3 PM with a performance by Austin Philemon.

September 21, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organ Adventurer Gail Archer Rescues Rare Ukrainian Works From Obscurity

Organist Gail Archer is the first American woman to perform the complete Messiaen cycle. Witnessing her play some of the best of it on the mighty Kilgen organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral back in 2008 was a visceral thrill. But Archer’s passion seems to be rescuing the work of obscure composers. In the ensuing years, she turned her attention to American composers, then to little-known Russian works. Her latest album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – streaming at Spotify – celebrates an even lesser-known part of the repertoire.

While just about every Western European city is filled with pipe organs, the instrument is much harder to find in Russia and even more so in Ukraine. But Archer went to the well and came up with a fascinating playlist of mostly short works, the majority by contemporary composers. Interestingly, she had to go outside the Russian Orthodox tradition for the organ she performs on here, a Riegger-Kloss model in the Armenian Catholic Church in Chernivtsi with particularly strong, French midrange colors.

The first piece is Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare: Archer plays this decidedly ambiguous piece with steadiness but also restraint, rather than trying to make it a fullscale celebration, which it definitely is not. The second Kotyuk work here is Benedictus: Song of Zachariah. It’s an interesting piece of music, beginning as a similarly enigmatic fanfare and warming to a chuffing rondo requiring precision as pointillistic as it can possibly get on this instrument: Archer rises to the challenge.

Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements begins with a rhythmically dissociative introduction with prominent pedal work, grows steadier with a more airy, meditative midrange passage and then morphs into a pavane. Archer follows the brief, robust processional third part with more of a defiantly unresolved fugue, with some lusciously austere tremolo. She wraps it up with a brief, emphatic chorale and some well thought-out echo effects: this obviouly isn’t just a piano piece shifted to the organ, as one might expect coming from this part of the world.

The Fantasia, by Viktor Goncharenko echoes the off-kilter rhythms of the album’s opening piece, but with many more stops out, at least until a rather desolate passage and then a coolly insistent conclusion. Mykola Kolessa, who died in 2006 at age 103, is represented by an allusively chromatic, waltzing, artfully crescendoing and often outright suspenseful Passacaglia: what a discovery!

Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona makes a good segue, a blend of swirling old-world grace and modern austerity. Archer closes with Iwan Kryschanowskij’s hauntingly symphonic Fantasie, its variations on stairstepping riffage and a long build to macabre resonance. Although the music calms, the theme continues to circle around a foreboding center until an anthemic variation on the introduction. At last, Archer takes those steps all the way down into the abyss, only to rise to a guarded triumph.

Until the lockdown, Archer maintained a busy schedule not only as a performer but also as an impresario. And she’s taking the brave step of scheduling an album release concert for this record at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. at 1st Ave. on Sept 19 at 3 PM; admission is free.

September 12, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thrills and Chills with Organist Jeremy Filsell at St. Thomas Church

“What an extraordinary time to arrive here,” organist and new St. Thomas Church music director Jeremy Filsell reflected during his extensive opening remarks Friday night to kick off this year’s Grand Organ Series there. Considering that he gets to spend more time than anyone else at the church’s new Miller-Scott organ, he’s in an enviable position. This mighty instrument is even louder and more colorful than the old hybrid Aeolian-Skinner model it replaced – and that machine was a beast.

Filsell also spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants. Gerre Hancock, who served as music director here for over thirty years, was one of them, one of the world’s great organ improvisers and a first-class composer as well. Filsell played one of his works, Trumpet Flourishes for Christmas, airing out the fiery trumpet stops located in the ceiling with a playfully triumphant dialogue bookending a swirling joie de vivre over long, resonant tones. Having had the good fortune to hear Dr. Hancock play the piece during the holiday season, over twenty years ago, it’s safe to say he would have approved.

The other illustrious prececessor Filsell was referring to, of course, was John Scott, who succeeded Hancock and tragically did not live to play the organ he had so much of a hand in designing. Scott reveled in utilizing every color and every texture he could find, and Filsell seems cut from the same cloth. He opened the show with a solo transcription of Julian Wachner’s showy, chuffing Angelus, originally conceived as a concerto for organ and orchestra. It gave the organist a prime opportunity to show off the various sections of the new instrument, without spending much time in any one place, all the way through to a coy wisp of an ending that had the crowd chuckling.

Jean-Jacques Grunenwald’s Diptyque Liturgique, from 1956, provided Filsell with more terse, purposeful passages utilizing the organ’s bright, French colors, both with calm Widor-esque atmospherics and more opaque, Alain-like passages, starriness contrasting with a long, portentous crescendo.

Calvin Hampton’s In Praise of Humanity was more playful yet unsettled, Filsell nimbly negotiating its tricky 5/8 metrics, echo phrasing and nymphlike clusters, primarily utilizing the organ’s many flute stops. The piece de resistance was Marcel Dupre’s embittered, vastly symphonic triptych, Evocation, Op. 37. Written in 1941, after the composer had whisked his organist father away from the imperiled Rouen cathedral, only to see him die enroute, the piece is riddled with vindictive anti-Nazi imagery. Filsell played up the variations on a cannon-fire motif along with the Shostakovian sarcasm of a pompous march, a stuffy waltz and a phony fanfare or two.

An exquisitely tender solo on what Dupre would have called the cromorne stop was arguably the highlight of the concert. Fisell also went deeply into the suite’s minute details and expansive dynamic shifts, from distant, airy unease, to grim, resounding chords and defiantly conspiratorial flurries, all the way through to a masterfully spaced yet ineluctably savage ending. What a thrill, and what a relevant piece for our time.

The next concert in the Grand Organ Concert series here is on October 19 at 3 PM featuring Christophe Mantoux playing a sizzling all-French program of works by Messiaen, Durufle, Tournemire, Vierne and Franck. Cover is $20.

October 2, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greg Lewis’ Organ Monk: A Completely Different, High-Voltage Beast

Organist Greg Lewis opened his set at the Provincetown Playhouse a couple of weeks ago with a mighty, sustained swell of tritones that grew more and more menacing as the sound swirled and smoked through his Leslie speaker. Then he launched into his first Thelonious Monk number of the night. In over an hour onstage, he took the crowd on a roller-coaster of whirlwind riffs, purist blues, phantasmagorial chromatics, a dip into gritty noir, then up and out with a torrential take of Monk’s Four in One.

Lewis calls this project Organ Monk – and was giving away free t-shirts to spread the gospel of Monk on the organ, a “completely different beast” compared to the man in the hat’s piano originals. It’s amazing how much color and orchestral vastness Lewis gets out of his righthand, considering that he doesn’t use the pedals much, tirelessly walking the bass with his left, constantly working the drawbars for subtle shifts in tone and timbre. Monk on the piano can be creepy – Monk on Lewis’ B3 is terrifying.

Yet for all the pyrotechnics, the best song of the night might have been Lewis’ own, slow, simmering, somber, subtly latin-tinged original, dedicated to his nephew. Then he picked up the pace with a handful of tunes from his latest album, American Standards a collection of reharmonized Broadway and cabaret tunes that Monk liked to play Guitarist Ron Jackson was every bit as ferocious as Lewis was, capping off several solos with machete volleys of tremolo-picked chords and taking the intensity up even further with his circing, lightning arpeggios and clustering riffs. And who would have expected icy ghoulabilly chicken-scratch, or wide swaths of octaves that were closer to Indian raga riffs than Wes Montgomery? Behind them, their drummer used his hardware for playful accents when he wasn’t swinging the funk with an agile understatement.

The concert series’ organizer, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro added some high-voltage, Coltrane-ish flurries and stormy torrents on a couple of tune as well. It was a change from the lyrical. Ravel-influenced tunefulness he’d played at the festival’s opening concert the previous week, leading a great band with Gary Versace on piano, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Johannes Weidenmueller on bass and Rudy Royston on drums.

Lewis continues to maintain a punishing gig schedule all over town; he and another first-rate guitarist, Marvin Sewell are at Bar Lunatico for brunch on July 21 at 1 PM. This year’s summer series of admission-free jazz concerts at the Provincetown Playhouse on Washington Square West continues on July 22 at 7 PM with Rolling Stones sax player Tim Ries and his band.

July 18, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loreto Aramendi Delivers Chills and Thrills at Central Synagogue

Musicians may be nocturnal creatures, but church organists have to be on their game at pertty much every hour of the day..So it was no surprkse when Spanish organist Loreto Aramendi played one of the year’s most exhilarating programs in the middle of the day, a couple of weeks ago on the

Musicians may be nocturnal creatures, but church organists have to be on their game at pertty much every hour of the day..So it was no surprkse when Spanish organist Loreto Aramendi played one of the year’s most exhilarating programs in the middle of the day, a couple of weeks ago on the gorgeously colorful organ at Central Synagogue

The highlight of her eclectically thrillling performance was the great organ composer Louis Vierne’s transcription of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude. It was a revelation: anchoring its grim counterpoint with a single, blackly portentous pedal note, Aramendi really took her time with it, a dirge to end all dirges.

Louis Robillard’s transcription of Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre was another deliciously phantasmagoriacal treat. Aramendi reveled in a bief volley of sepulchral gliasandos with as much relish as the false ending and the finale where the ghost goes on its merry way.

She opened the program with a Buxtehude toccata that was more of a song without words, reminding what a paradigm-shifter Bach’s biggest influence was. Another Robillard transcription, Liszt’s Funerailles, aptly foreshadowed the Rachmaninoff, A final Robillard arrangement, the Prelude and Scicilienne from Faure’s Peleas et Melisande matched High Romantic grandeur to lilting grace.

Ligeti’s tensely circling Coulee, from his Etudes for Organ, was the most monochromatically bleak, and in that sensse, darkest piece on the bill. Aramendi closed with a blaze of fury, giving Charles Tournemire’s cult favorite Victiae Paschali chorale every bit of torrential power she could muster. A small but raptly attentive midday crowd gave her a robust standing ovation.

This concert was the final episode of this spring’s series of monthly Prism Organ Concerts in the magnificent Lexington Avenue space just north of 54th Street, programmed by organist Gail Archer, who’s put out an unusually adventurous series of albums over the past several years, ranging from obscure American repertoire to iconic Messiaen works.  Watch this space for news about next season.

May 22, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The East West Trio Deliver a Stunning, Haunting, Armenian-Inspired Performance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Witnessing organist Marina Omelchenko slowly work her way up through the eerie chromatics of an ancient Armenian lament last night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was nothing short of sublime. It became even more so when duduk player Oganes Kazarian, situated at the opposite end of the church, joined the somber majesty with his meticulously modulated, mournful phrasing. Throughout the concert, whether playing against the organ, with soprano Tehmine Zaryan, or with both, he employed such a wide-angle vibrato that no matter how horizontal or enveloping the melody got at times, his inflections were always adding an otherworldly sparkle of overtones.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a duduk – the rustic, plaintively woody-toned Armenian oboe – paired with a church organ? Just the premise of the concert was impossible to resist, and for the most part the three individualists of the East West Trio delivered on the promise of such a deliciously textured sound. Kazarian kept his modes muted and reserved throughout a rapt duet with Zaryan toward the end of the performance. When paired with Omelchenko, especially in her arrangements of a handful of Armenian hymns and traditional numbers, he was much more forceful, a brand-new stop in an almighty beast, the church’s Kilgen organ.

Zaryan hit a spine-tingling crescendo at the end of a Schubert aria early on; a concluding Andrew Lloyd Webber ditty was impossible to redeem. But getting there was an often breathtaking rollercoaster ride. Omelchenko began with cinematic and then cantabile Bach and then worked her way to triumph with all the stops out, through the stately power of a Tcherepnin overture. Yet despite all the fireworks, the quieter Armenian melodies were the most hauntingly resonant.

St. Patrick’s has not only a very eclectic series of free organ concerts, typically at 3:15 PM on Sundays, but also an intriguing series of classical performances that often involve the organ in some way. The next one is this Sunday the 27th at the usual time with organist Heitor Caballero playing a diverse program of works by Bruhns, Guilmant, Sebastian Duron and Flor Peeters.

January 25, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Gail Archer Reinvents a Horror Movie Classic and Unearths Rare Russian Gems

What’s more Halloweenish in 2018 than Russia? Not to invalidate anyone’s suffering, but compared to what Russians have had to deal with under Putin, this country’s had it relatively easy lately. And Russia doesn’t have this November 6 to look forward to.

Musically speaking, what could be more appropriate for this Wednesday’s holiday than a Russian organ music record? It doesn’t hurt that it’s played by one of this era’s most adventurous interpreters of the classical organ repertoire, Gail Archer. Her latest album A Russian Journey is streaming at Spotify.

While there isn’t as vast a tradition of music for the organ in Russia as there is further west, there was a boomlet of composers writing for the instrument beginning in the late 1800s. That’s the formative period Archer starts with, unearthing some majestically tuneful, frequently mysterious material that too seldom gets programmed beyond its home turf.

She gives Cesar Cui’s hypnotic, Asian-tinged Prelude in G Minor a relentless, artfully crescendoing interpretation. His Prelude in A Flat Major comes as a shocking contrast, a starry, steady, mysteriously rising piece with a sobering balance between lows and exuberantly voiced highs, maxing out the organ’s high reed stops. It’s a roller rink at Dr. Zhivago’s grave.

Likewise, Sergei Ljapunow’s enigmatically neoromantic Prelude Pastoral has both steadfastness and swirl, through shadowy counterpoint between the pedals and midrange, bittersweet glitter, and confidently calm exchanges of catchy, allusively carnivalesque riffage between registers. Clearly, this is Baba Yaga country he’s exploring here. Glazunov’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor is steady, stately and somber, Archer maxing out the silken sheen of the upper registers again as she builds intensity through the hypnotic waltz of the fugue.

Contemporary composer Sergej Slominski’s Toccata has a brightly celebratory French flavor: the work of Eugene Gigout comes to mind. Archer strolls enigmatically through the opening bars of Alexander Schawersaschwili’s Prelude and Fugue, a dynamic piece with acidic sheets of sound, calmly marionettish phrasing and cinematically climbing variations, She winds up the album with a vigorous, epic, yet often remarkably subtle take of Zsigmond Szathmary’s organ arrangement of Moussorgsky’s classic Night on Bald Mountain, which in terms of sheer mystery outdoes most of the orchestral versions used in horror films for the better part of a century.  Rabid members of the organ music underground won’t be the only people who will relish making some new discoveries here.

October 30, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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