“People have a lot of misconceptions about the organ,” says organ virtuoso Christopher Houlihan, who was on the phone during one of his rare breaks in concertizing. “They think of it as either a spooky instrument or a boring church instrument. My mission is to change people’s attitudes.”
Houlihan, a 26-year-old organ phenom who has earned rave reviews from both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, will bring his instrumental crusade to Nashville this weekend. On Friday evening, he will perform a dauntingly difficult program featuring the music of Bach, Saint-Saëns and Franck, among others, at Christ Church Cathedral.
Born in Connecticut in 1987, Houlihan began organ studies at age 12 and within three years had won his first major award – first prize in the Albert Schweitzer National Organ Competition. He made his orchestral debut while still a student at Trinity College in Hartford. Later, he pursued his master’s degree at the Juilliard School, studying with famed organist Paul Jacobs.
National recognition came to Houlihan in 2012, when he launched a six-city U.S. tour commemorating the 75th anniversary of French composer and organist Louis Vierne’s death. For the event, Houlihan performed all of Vierne’s organ symphonies at concerts in New York, Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal and Dallas. His fanatically loyal fans, who refer to themselves as “Houli Fans,” helped finance the project.
Critic Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times declared Houlihan’s recital at the Church of the Ascension as one of New York’s all-time greatest organ recitals. Critic Mark Swed was just as effusive in the Los Angeles Times, writing of Houlihan’s concert as a “revelation.”
“A slight young man wearing a conservative suit with a power tie (the jacket soon came off), Houlihan has more the aspect of clean-cut young MBA or Washington policy wonk than of a phantom-of-the-opera mad organist,” wrote Swed. “He is an eloquent musician. His rhythmic sense is clear-cut American. His feet elegantly tap dance on the pedals. Everything he plays is sharply and smartly delineated.”
The Vierne tour cemented Houlihan’s reputation, and he is now one of the few organists in the country to make a living exclusively from concertizing. “I give about 30 recitals a years,” says Houlihan. “I’ve played across the United States and Europe, but the one place I’ve never played is Nashville.”
The highlight of Houlihan’s Nashville recital will be César Franck’s Grande Pièce Symphonique, Op. 17. Published in 1868, Franck’s magnum opus is aptly named. “It is a symphony composed for a solo instrument,” says Houlihan. “The organ brings out all of the music’s symphonic color.”
Friday’s program will also include Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564; Charles-Marie Widor’s Allegro from Symphony No. 6, Op. 42, No. 2; Maurice Duruflé’s Prelude and Fugue on the name Alain; and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantasy in E-flat major.
IF YOU GO
Organist Christopher Houlihan performs the music of Bach, Duruflé, Saint-Saëns, Widor and Franck at Christ Church Cathedral, 900 Broadway. The recital begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 and is free.