A Chat With: Organist Christopher Houlihan

Classic Arts Features   A Chat With: Organist Christopher Houlihan
An interview with the organist Christopher Houlihan, who performs at Christ and St Luke's Episcopal Church in Norfolk on May 3 at 8:00 pm. The concert is co-presented by Virginia Arts Festival and the Tidewater Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Mr. Houlihan will perform music by JS Bach, Louis Vierne, Camille Saint-Saens and Franz Liszt.

The young American organist Christopher Houlihan, one of the brightest stars in the new generation of American organists, performs in recital around the world. Last summer’s tour featuring music by Louis Vierne attracted international attention and critical acclaim from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and more. Mr. Houlihan’s devoted group of followers, the “Houli Fans,” attend his concerts around the country.

Tell us about the music you’ll be performing on May 3.

This program has some of my favorite music on it. Liszt is usually thought of as a virtuoso pianist, but he also had a fascination with the organ. He took a theme from Meyerbeer's opera Le Prophète and wrote the Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad Nos ad salutarem undam." It's truly one of his most profound, epic pieces. Right before the Liszt, I'll play a short (and a little bit campy) Fantasy by Camille Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns – who championed and performed lots of Liszt's music throughout his life - called the "Ad Nos," "the most extraordinary organ piece in existence."

Last summer I performed marathon concerts of Louis Vierne's six organ symphonies around North America. On top of being born nearly blind, Vierne had a largely tragic life: his wife cheated on him with his "friend," an organ builder; two of his sons and a brother were killed in World War I; he fell in a ditch and broke his leg at one point (obviously a big set back to an organist); his list of woes goes on and on. It's no wonder he was severely depressed by the end of his life. Despite that, he managed to write these colorful and highly personal organ symphonies. I'm going to play the Third in Norfolk; it's his most popular for a good reason. It shows Vierne at his most frustrated (in the Allegro and Final), but in the Intermezzo we see his quirky sense of humor and in the Adagio (which he called a 'song without words'), he's at his most gentle and romantic.

And I’ll play a bit of Bach, of course. He was THE organ virtuoso of his time. It was even written in his obituary that he could play things with his feet that most organists would struggle to play with their hands. The Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor (BWV 542) definitely shows off Bach's "skills."

You are performing on the organ at Christ and St Luke's Episocpal Church. Have you played this instrument before? What do you have to do to get to know an instrument that is new to you?

Every organ is completely different from the next. Violinists and other musicians can travel with their instrument and show up a half-hour before the recital and perform. Even a pianist knows what to expect to find. But I have to go to a place a day or two in advance and spend hours, usually eight to 16 hours, getting ready for a performance. One organ might have two keyboards, the next might have five. One organ might have 500 pipes, the next might have 10,000! All of this means that each time I play the same piece of music, I have to re-orchestrate it and re-imagine it for that specific organ.

The organ at Christ and St. Luke’s was built in Quebec, Canada by the Casavant organ company in 1963 (Casavant builds organs all over the world to this day). I've played several of their instruments and am definitely looking forward to "getting to know" this one in Norfolk. In addition to beautiful solo sounds (an English Horn, for example) their organs often have a great fiery quality when you "pull out all the stops" and let it roar.

How did you get started playing the organ?

I started piano lessons when I was six, and I "discovered" the organ in church when I was 10. I got totally hooked on it. I just thought, "this is so much cooler than the piano." I think it was all of the buttons and keyboards, the shiny pipes, and how LOUD it could be that fascinated me. I spent the next couple of years absorbing as much information as I could about organs, but it also took that long to find someone to actually teach me how to play it. If you wanted to take saxophone lessons, no problem, but no one seemed to know anything about taking organ lessons. Well, fate has a way of working these things out…I heard about and went to an organ recital (a what?!) being played in a town nearby. It was the first time I heard any "concert" organ music, and how lucky was I that the performer, John Rose, let me audition to be his student. The rest is history. I studied with him all throughout high school, and then as an undergraduate at Trinity College in Hartford, where he teaches.

An organ is one of the few musical instruments that requires the player to use his hands as well as his feet. How do you keep all your limbs coordinated?

Playing the organ really is a full body experience. Your hands are playing on the keyboards, meanwhile your feet are playing on the pedalboard (like a big piano, but for the feet). On top of that, you're pushing all of these buttons (the pistons) to change the stops (to get different sounds out of the organ) and you might even be opening and closing the swell boxes (putting your foot on these things that look like a car's gas pedal) to make some of the pipes sound louder or softer. Sometimes people say 'it looks like you're dancing up there,' which is true in a way: a big part of playing the organ is choreographing all your appendages.

You wear special shoes to perform. How do they help you play?

My organ shoes are just like dance shoes, but with a heel. Playing the organ in regular shoes would probably be like trying to play the piano with big winter gloves on—you'd end up hitting all sorts of notes you didn't mean to. Wearing organ shoes helps ensure that I only play the pedals I mean to play, and since they have a soft, suede sole I can slide around without getting stuck. The heel makes it easier to pivot from pedal to pedal: the first note is played with my heel, the next is played with my toe.

What would you tell people who are about to hear their first organ recital?

Don't expect it to sound like anything you've ever heard before! The organ has the capability of being crushingly loud at one moment, and as soft as a whisper the next. What other single instrument can be that thrilling and that versatile?

The organ and organ music have this reputation of being really boring and dull, or "churchy." I'm not even really sure what that means, but it's what people seem to think. On the other hand, I can't count how many times someone has come up to me after I give a performance and said, "this is my first organ recital and I had no idea it could be this exciting!"

What’s the best part about your profession as a concert organist?

I feel so lucky to have opportunities to share music with people. I also love traveling the country, and I've gotten to see so many parts of the US I never expected I'd visit. But the best part is getting to make music.

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