Music Review: The stars align for organist Christopher Houlihan’s concert in Nashville

houliThe success of organ recitals, as much or more than other types of concerts, depend on a fortuitous coming together of performer, instrument and acoustic setting. On Friday evening, those elements aligned perfectly in a virtuoso performance by Christopher Houlihan, playing the Lively-Fulcher organ at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Nashville.

Houlihan, at age 26, is a rising star in the world of organ music. His formidable technique is never applied as an end in itself, but is always at the service of the music, which, for this recital, was of uniformly high quality. His choice of serious repertoire implied that he expected to be playing for knowledgeable listeners who could and would appreciate hearing it. Given the audience’s enthusiastic response, I doubt he was disappointed.

The program, which included works by five great organist/composers, opened with the powerful and dramatic first movement of Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony No. 6. The piece begins with loud, thick chords, and from the start it was apparent that the relatively dry acoustic of Christ Church Cathedral would work to the music’s advantage. Often, in more reverberant spaces, such thick textures can become a barely differentiated wall of sound in which it’s difficult for the ear to discern what is actually going on. While it can be nice at times to wallow in a sonic wash, it was good, on this occasion, to really be able to hear with clarity what Widor wrote. Houlihan’s performance was fully engaging from the first note to the last.

The next piece, J. S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564 was the odd man out in a program otherwise dedicated to French music of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is an early work and shows Bach in an expansive mood. The toccata features roulades of scales for the hands and a lengthy bravura passage for the feet alone, which for Houlihan seemed as easy as a walk in the park. The adagio, in the style of an ornamented aria, was played sensitively overall, but the registration of the melody at the beginning could have been more subtle. The fugue was cheerful and exuberant.

The first half of the program ended with a wonderful performance of the exquisite Prelude and Fugue on the name ALAIN by Maurice Duruflé. It was written in remembrance of the composer’s friend, the organist and composer Jehan Alain, who was killed in action at the beginning of World War II. The musical representation of ALAIN (the pitches a-d-a-a-f) figures most prominently as the opening notes of the fugue subject.

The briefest piece on the program, the charming Fantasy in E-flat Major of Camille Saint-Saëns, opened the second half and the longest, weightiest piece, César Franck’s Grande Pièce Symphonique, Op. 17 closed it. The Franck, like the Widor that began the recital, benefitted from the cathedral’s clear acoustic. It made it possible to comprehend and enjoy Franck’s highly chromatic writing without succumbing to aural confusion.

The piece is in several connected movements, contrasting the dramatic, the playful and the lyrical; the slow movement was particularly lovely. As Houlihan pointed out, Franck was “the first composer to treat the organ like an orchestra” and the work was a showpiece for what the organ can do. Like every other piece on the program, Houlihan played with great technical and musical authority. My only minor qualm about his playing is that he sometimes holds final chords for longer than is appropriate in their context. In this he is not alone; it is a characteristic endemic among organists, due, perhaps, to the nature of the instrument, which has no natural physical limitation on how long a chord can be held. As an encore, Houlihan treated the audience to a delightful rendition of the Scherzo from Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 2.

Organ recitals can be the most austere and cerebral of musical events, but this one was humanized in a couple of ways. One was that Christopher Houlihan spoke to the audience between selections. His genial manner and his brief, pertinent and sometimes humorous remarks about the pieces he was about to play was welcome.

The other was that his performance in the organ loft was videoed and shown on a screen at the front of the nave. That was a mixed blessing. On the positive side, it could certainly be instructive to the uninitiated and enhance their appreciation by showing just how complicated and difficult the business of playing the organ is. Seeing the hands jump between manuals in the Saint-Saëns or watching the rapid footwork in the Bach does add a certain dimension to the experience that just hearing the pieces doesn’t provide.

On the other hand, the visual aspect of seeing the performer, especially at such close range (it was if you were standing right next to the organ console) is not what one expects at an organ recital, and I found it more distracting than illuminating. In a culture where screens of one sort or another, from personal iPhones to stadium Jumbotrons are omnipresent, it can be refreshing to spend time in a space where you are allowed to just sit quietly and listen.

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About Michael Harrison

Michael Harrison lived in Nashville from 2006 to 2009 and has recently returned. He holds degrees in music theory from the University at Albany and choral conducting from the University of Iowa and has done doctoral work in historical performance practice and choral music at Washington University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively. He founded the Palestrina Choir of Washington, D.C. and directed it for twenty years. His choral compositions have been performed by a variety of church and community choirs, including three in Nashville.