04/03/2012 08:27 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

Christopher Houlihan Makes A Powerful Debut at Davies Symphony Hall

The pipe organ has always been an evolving beast, a breathing mechanical thing that has only gotten smarter with time. Its fusion with 21st-century digital technology has sparked a resurgence in its popularity, along with a few outcries of heresy, but certainly unlike anything else happening on the Classical Music scene. Once again the pipe organ emerges as "The King of Instruments," and Christopher Houlihan is its youngest and most promising interpreter in the realm. His debut recital in San Francisco this past Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall was heralded by a rousing standing ovation and, with the last vibration of his encore, Vierne's Toccata in B flat minor, the crowd was in a full roar of approval.

Photo, Sean Martinfield

I visited with Christopher backstage on the previous Friday afternoon during a rehearsal break. I knew the line-up for his Sunday recital which would begin with Bach's evergreen Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Every organist/composer has a vital connection to Bach including the other composers featured on Christopher's program - Maurice Ravel, Charles Widor, and Louis Vierne. What this trio also shares in common is the death knell of 1937. (Add to that list the name of George Gershwin -- it was a tough year for the music industry.) June 2nd marks the 75th anniversary of the passing of one of Christopher's top favorite composers - Louis Vierne, principal organist at Notre Dame Cathedral from 1900-1937. To commemorate the occasion, Christopher will be in New York at the Church of the Ascension delivering a daunting marathon of all six Vierne organ symphonies. We were treated to his Second Symphony, a work that took up the second-half of Christopher's recital and which he pushed to full glory through the 8,264 pipes of the hall's magnificent Ruffatti.

"There is a sort-of infamous story that surrounds Vierne's death," said Christopher with a winsome smile. "The clergy at Notre Dame decided there weren't going to be anymore concerts in the cathedral. So, a final recital was scheduled -- supposedly Vierne's 1,750th performance -- and he shared it with his pupil, Maurice Duruflé. Vierne finished playing one of his own compositions and was about to begin an improvisation. French organists are well know for their improvisations. He suffers a heart attack, lands on Low-E, and dies."

"What a great way to go," I replied.

"And that's how he wanted to go! It was well known that that's where he hoped he would die. But, it's been recommended that I not re-enact that portion of the story."

During his junior year at Trinity College in Hartford, Christopher took off for Paris and studied with organist/composer Jean-Baptiste Robin. While there he performed regularly, served as assistant musician at the American Cathedral, and earned the Prix de Perfectionnement from the French National Regional Conservatory in Versailles. But where does this journey begin? Was the point of inspiration the organ repertoire or a celebrity musician?

"The organ is unlike any other instrument," he replied. "But what ended up becoming my love -- and the reason I perform -- is the music. Absolutely. I don't care about the organs necessarily. The first time I heard Classical organ music, in a really great way, happened when I was 12. I grew up in a small Connecticut town just south of Springfield, Massachusetts. I went to a recital being given by organist John Rose and heard Bach, Vierne and Mendelssohn. I heard the organ like never before. I asked him how I could take lessons. He invited me down to Hartford and I had my first lesson at Trinity College. I ended up studying with him through high school and then went to college there."

Christopher's program included Ravel's Vocalise - a song, a habanera, composed in 1907. Ravel then arranged the work for violin. Either way, it's suggestive, dreamy and erotic. Not surprisingly, Christopher's treatment drops the seventh veil. "People generally don't think of the organ like that. I had not heard Ravel's Vocalise before I found it in a book of organ transcriptions. I thought this was sort-of strange and wondered what Ravel had written it for. So I went back to the original version and took it to a modern organ and discovered so many wonderful Ravel-type colors I could create. The piece is a little sensual, a little exotic."

I associate some of Ravel with my passion for Impressionist art. I asked Christopher if he found a connection with Ravel's more sensual and dreamy expressions in Vierne's Second Symphony.

"There are some similarities. There is a lot of dreaminess in the Cantabile movement, some of his later symphonies have a lot of it. Some of the music of Durufle sounds more Impressionistic. Debussy heard the second and third movements of the Second Symphony and said something like, "J.S. Bach would have been proud." And Debussy was a pretty harsh critic. So, if it was good enough for Debussy... I do want to play more Ravel. I spent a year in Paris and studied with organist/composer Jean-Baptiste Robin. That experience definitely influences my performances. Most organs in this country don't sound anything like what I heard and played on these other instruments. I think the trap that most organists fall into is saying, 'This stop has the same name and Vierne says I must use it.' But it doesn't matter to them that it sounds nothing like the French organs. If hearing Widor's music at St. Sulpice just drops you to your knees, then it should have the same effect here, even if it means you have to do what might be considered "unorthodox things" to get the effect across, to get the music across. For me, it's not about doing something for shock value. It's about making the music come across in a better way. The same goes for playing the music of Bach on a modern day instrument. You can't pretend it's an historic instrument. A pianist doesn't play Bach and pretend he's playing a harpsichord. He may not play it as he would a piece by Liszt, but makes the music of Bach come across in a musical way. With the organ, all you're doing is turning pipes on and off. We don't have any connection to the sound we're producing or any real control over it. We can manipulate the stops and all the mechanical things, but I'm not breathing into an instrument, I'm not bowing any harder. However hard I may press the keys -- it doesn't matter. I think there must be some sort of psychological, physiological disconnect that often renders organ music very dull. I try to sing a lot, even when I'm performing, just in my head, trying to make this machine make music. It's very different than playing the piano."

Christopher has "IT" -- that elusive something which the 1920s author of women's erotic fiction Elinor Glyn described as "a quality which draws others with its magnetic force." Inevitably, young Mr. Houlihan's New York appearances will attract the entertainment media toward his next and every move. All that, and music too.

Says Christopher, "I'm always amazed at the number of people who come up to me after a recital and say, 'I had no idea that organ music could sound like this or that I would enjoy it this much.' I was having this experience when I was an undergrad at Trinity College - with my friends, most of whom weren't musicians. I think they enjoyed it much more than they expected to. They started calling me "Houli". They are my "Houli Fans". They got more people to come to my recitals. It's a shame that some people think organ music is some sort of scary thing we have to approach on our knees and in reverence. There's no reason that young people cannot enjoy a Vierne symphony. The music is visceral, fun and exciting. It takes you on such an incredible emotional journey. Whatever your background is, just give the music a chance. Come and have a good time. I think you're going to love it."

Click here to get better acquainted: Houli

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