Christopher Houlihan

concert organist

GRAMOPHONE Review: Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach

Gramophone, ed Distler

Christopher Houlihan commences BWV542’s Fantasia with a delightful introductory flourish, and characterises the rippling fireworks and introspective interludes with strikingly different yet compelling timbral contrasts, topping things off with a brisk and fluent fugue. The Italian Concerto’s first two movements work surprisingly well on the organ in Houlihan’s arrangement. He transforms the implied pedal points in the harpsichord score into real ones, although Bach’s indicated distinctions between solo and tutti passages don’t consistently come across. However, the finale’s crackling energy sinks under the organ’s sonorous weight. So does the climax of the Fugue in B minor, BWV544, where the massive registrations contrast with the relatively transparent woodwind-like stops prevailing throughout the Prelude.

On the other hand, Houlihan’s registral diversity enlivens and clarifies the lucid and excellently articulated contrapuntal interplay in all three movements of the G major Trio Sonata. His lithe tempos and incisive inner rhythm stand out in the C major Toccata and Fugue, BWV564, not to mention a central Adagio that emerges like an aria, as opposed to the blobby, interminable dirge that I’ve heard from certain famous Bach organists. If Houlihan’s C minor Passacaglia and Fugue misses some of the kinetic sweep and cumulative grandeur that Marie-Claire Alain and Anthony Newman have brought to it, the numerous contrasts in tone colour and dynamics not only add textural variety but also help to illuminate the music’s structure without labouring the point.

The engineering strikes a judicious balance between clear instrumental definition and preserving something of the chapel’s natural resonance. It may not be politically correct in 2017 to present Bach’s organ music on an American model instrument whose electro-pneumatic action and wide range of dynamics and registrations are far removed from the composer’s time. Yet when you reckon with a passionate and intelligently virtuoso musician such as Christopher Houlihan manning the Trinity College Chapel Organ in Hartford, Connecticut, who cares?

Christopher Houlihan to Become Trinity's Next Distinguished Chair of Chapel Music

Trinity College alumnus Christopher Houlihan ’09, renowned organist and artist-in-residence at Trinity since 2013, has been named to succeed John Rose as the John Rose College Organist-and-Directorship Distinguished Chair of Chapel Music. Rose’s contributions to the musical life of Trinity College have been both deep and enduring over his 40-year career at the College. 
Rose and Houlihan are much sought-after concert organists who have performed for audiences all over the world. Both have spent countless hours practicing and performing on Trinity College’s well-known pipe organ, and, in Rose’s case, thousands of hours teaching student organists. The instrument, built in 1971 by Austin Organs, Inc. of Hartford, contains nearly 5,000 pipes and was designed by Clarence Watters, Trinity College organist from 1932 through 1969.

Houlihan, who is director of music and organist at the Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City, grew up in Somers, Connecticut, and began organ studies with Rose at the age of 12. Houlihan is widely acknowledged as one of the brightest stars in the new generation of organists, praised by the media as “gifted” (The New York Times), “dazzling” (The Wall Street Journal), and “eloquent” (Los Angeles Times).

“Trinity has a unique standing among liberal arts colleges as a center of organ performance and choral music, a tradition that has been the foundation of my own career,” said Houlihan. “I am honored to have the opportunity to continue in this great legacy, serving in the footsteps of Clarence Watters and John Rose.”

Houlihan also studied with Grammy Award-winning organist Paul Jacobs at The Juilliard School, where he earned a master’s degree, and with Jean-Baptiste Robin at the French National Regional Conservatory in Versailles. In 2015, he was selected for The Diapason’s “20 Under 30,” a distinguished list of leaders in the organ world under the age of 30.

Houlihan has established an international reputation for his artistry with performances in celebrated venues in major cities across North America, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, as well as at numerous conventions of the American Guild of Organists and the Organ Historical Society. In 2014, Houlihan made his Disney Hall debut, performing with principal brass of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which the Los Angeles Times raved, “Houlihan is the next big organ talent.”

In February 2017, Houlihan released a new all-Bach organ CD on the Azica label, Christopher Houlihan plays Bach (Azica ACD-71314). Recorded at Trinity College, the CD features Bach’s famous Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and Houlihan’s own arrangement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, BWV 971.

“At his first organ lesson in the Trinity College Chapel, neither then-12-year-old Christopher Houlihan nor I could have possibly imagined how his career would develop and flourish and that he would ultimately return to Trinity to become my successor,” said Rose. “I could not be more thrilled for him and for Trinity! I also feel confident in saying that one of the earliest ‘Houli Fans,’ the late Professor Majorie V. Butcher, would be equally excited to know that her generous endowment of this position is in such talented hands – and feet.”

Rose, who will retire in December, has overseen the music for 40 consecutive years of major College events at the Trinity College Chapel. In addition to the many solo organ recitals he himself has performed, he curates the Trinity College Organ Series, bringing some of the world’s premier concert organists to play at Trinity, drawing audiences from the campus and the Greater Hartford community. Rose has made 16 LP or CD recordings, several of which were recorded at the Cathedral of St. Joseph (Hartford) and at Trinity, including This Son So Young (Towerhill Recordings), featuring soprano Liesl Odenweller ’88 and the music of Robert Edward Smith, composer-in-residence at the Chapel since 1979.
Among major projects Rose has overseen at the College are the installation of the Austin organ’s Trompette-de-Jubilé stop and the choir gallery (both in 1982), the organ case (1986) designed by Charles Nazarian ’73, and a new four-manual organ console (2013). The Crypt Chapel organ, designed and built by Nicholson & Co. of Malvern, England, was given in honor of Rose in 1992.

Rose serves on the board of the Albert Schweitzer Organ Festival Hartford, a major national competition for young organists, which relocated to Trinity College in 2016.

In addition, Rose directs The Chapel Singers, Trinity’s oldest student organization, who sing at weekly Chapel services, College convocations, and concerts on campus and beyond. Houlihan, who will begin his new role at Trinity in August, will also direct The Chapel Singers.

At the annual Christmas Festival of Lessons and Carols in 2016, a large choir of Chapel Singers alumni was organized to sing at the services, celebrating Rose’s direction of 80 consecutive Festivals of Lessons and Carols at Trinity. Rose has organized and conducted The Chapel Singers in concert tours both domestically and abroad. Following this academic year’s Commencement, the group will embark on its second performance tour of Venice, Italy. Rose also serves as an adjunct professor of music, ex officio, in the Department of Music, where he directs the Trinity College Choir.

College Chaplain Allison Read said, “John Rose is a highly respected musician and much admired member of the Trinity College community who has dedicated himself and his career to the liberal arts endeavor. He shares his own passions and professional excellence with young people while simultaneously making a significant contribution to the arts in the Greater Hartford region and beyond. As College organist and director of Chapel music, John has shaped the lives of generations of Trinity students, beautifully crafted worship in the historic Trinity College Chapel, extended the Chapel music programs to a wide public audience, and deeply enriched the College through musical excellence and a strong commitment to life in community. A distinguished chair in his name allows us not only to honor and preserve his legacy but to carry it forward with the work of his successor, Christopher Houlihan.”

Read noted that the College will celebrate Rose’s career with a public organ recital and festive gatherings during the fall 2017 semester.

Rose earned a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, where he was also an instructor in organ. He was a student of the famed virtuoso Virgil Fox for seven years. Rose began his professional career at the age of 20, when he was appointed organist of the Sacred Heart Cathedral/Basilica in New Jersey.

In 2005, the John Rose Organ Scholarship Fund was established in his honor to be awarded annually to students of organ performance at Trinity College; Houlihan was the first recipient of the scholarship award. In honor of Rose’s 30th anniversary at the College, the choir rehearsal room was named the John Rose Choir Practice Room and two modern stained glass “Rose” windows were commissioned from Timothy Szal ’06 and installed in the director of Chapel music’s office. The John Rose College Organist-and-Directorship Distinguished Chair of Chapel Music was created in 2016 through a bequest from the estate of Marjorie Van Eenam Butcher, Trinity College professor of mathematics, emeritus, who was the College’s first female faculty member.

Rose is an elected member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London, and a member of the Association of Anglican Musicians and the American Guild of Organists. He has performed countless solo recitals at Trinity and appeared both in the Trinity College Chapel and at The Bushnell as a soloist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. previews Houlihan's Stambaugh Auditorium recital

by Daniel Hathaway

New York-based organist Christopher Houlihan returns to the restored E.M. Skinner organ at Youngstown’s Stambaugh Auditorium on Sunday, April 23 at 4:00 pm for a program of music by Louis Vierne, Olivier Messiaen, J.S. Bach, and César Franck.

Houlihan is well-known in Northeast Ohio, having played Bach, Franck, and Vierne at Stambaugh in November 2012, Vierne and Liszt at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights in April 2013, and most recently, Bach, Franck, and Vierne at Christ Presbyterian Church in Canton on March 19 of this year.

That repertoire list gives a big hint about Houlihan’s musical tastes, which run heavily toward French Romantic music, a national tradition the organist imbibed first-hand during a year he spent in Paris serving as assistant organist at the American Cathedral. His close kinship to Louis Vierne, the famous organist of Notre-Dame, inspired “Vierne 2012,” a tour in which he performed all six of the composer’s symphonies in a single day in each of six American cities. “I was so happy that audiences responded to this colorful, fun music that I love so much,” Houlihan said in an earlier interview with “People who thought that the organ is a cold, remote, or spooky instrument found that it grabbed their hearts.”

The organist is good at grabbing hearts. “Canton was amazing,” Houlihan said in a recent telephone conversation. “Not only was there a good-sized audience, but the listeners were incredibly focused, attentive, and quiet. People were really paying attention, and you could feel the energy in that room.”

Houlihan looks forward to working that kind of charm again next Sunday in Youngstown, in cahoots with an instrument he greatly admires. “In 2012, Franck and Vierne felt so much at home on that instrument with all its amazing, rich, orchestral sounds.”

The Stambaugh Skinner dates from 1926, nine years before Vierne died. Its restoration in 2009-2010 by the A. Thompson-Allen Company of New Haven brought the instrument back to pristine condition — adding no modern technology to its stop-selecting system. That means that organists have only four presets to use in setting registrations for an entire recital.

“In a kind of masochistic way, I enjoy the challenge,” Houlihan said, brightly. “Organists have to be incredibly flexible. The same piece on two organs can be vastly different to manage. You really have to plan which button you’re going to hit with which limb to change stops.”

HoulihanHoulihan’s program includes three excerpts from Vierne’s Second Symphony. “I loved playing the symphonies whole in 2012, and I have mixed feelings about extracting movements,” he said. “It’s like chapters in a book — they’re much better in context. But these movements stand well on their own, and Vierne himself often played excerpts.”

The Bach work at Stambaugh will be the great Fantasia and Fugue in g, which appears on the organist’s recently-released album, Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach, reviewed last month in these pages. “I’m really proud of that CD, and it’s gotten some really good notices,” he said. “It’s different from most Bach recordings these days, but it’s the way I wanted to play Bach on that particular day, on that particular instrument.”

The Bach album, which appears on the Azica label, was recorded over three nights in the chapel of Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where Houlihan studied as an undergraduate and where he now serves as artist in residence. “The first night is usually spent setting microphones and getting balances right,” he said. “I’m envious of musicians who can just go into a studio. With the organ, it’s ten times harder.”

Since our last interview, Houlihan has taken on more extensive duties at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles in New York, where he serves as music director. “It’s been very rewarding because they love music so much. I’m there most Sundays, but I get to be away to play recitals as much as I need to.” He plays a Dutch organ by van den Heuvel that was originally built for a private home in Texas, then sold to the church. “It has two enclosed divisions, bells, celestes, and a lot of things you wouldn’t expect from a small, three-manual organ.”

In addition to his forthcoming recital appearances, Christopher Houlihan is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new work by Hannah Lash which he’ll premiere in Jacksonville in June. It’s not his first commissioned work. “In 2013, Patrick Green composed Steel Symphony for me, based on sculptures in a park in Massachusetts — monsters that come to life,” he said. He’s also contemplating his next recording, but don’t ask him what he has in mind for repertoire. His lips are sealed.

The Whole Note CD review: Christopher Houlihan plays Bach

Alex Baran

April 1, 2017

Organ music fans have another CD to add to their collections with Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach (Azica ACD-71314). The instrument is always a critical ingredient in these projects and the Austin organ at Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, Connecticut, provides ample reason to pay attention. Organist Christopher Houlihan puts plenty of familiar Bach toccatas, preludes and fugues into his program, but what begins to emerge only moments into the performance is how brilliant a colourist Houlihan is. The instrument offers an enormous selection of reeds, strings and beautifully mellow flues. It’s built and voiced to provide the greatest possible dynamic range for the building it occupies. Houlihan’s clever choice of stops is nowhere more impressive than in his own arrangement of the Italian Concerto BWV971. It’s playful, celebratory and sparkles with colour. Every track on this CD takes advantage of this remarkable instrument and its gifted performer.

Cleveland Classical CD Review: Christopher Houlihan plays Bach

by Daniel Hathaway

Organist Christopher Houlihan’s two previous recordings were devoted to music by Maurice Duruflé, Jehan Alain and Louis Vierne — three go-to composers for demonstrating the talents of a young organ virtuoso. His most recent release on Cleveland’s Azica label takes on more dangerous interpretive material: some of the more monumental works of Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as Houlihan’s own arrangement of Bach’s Concerto in the Italian Style.

Performing on the Mather Chapel organ at Trinity College, Hartford, Houlihan manages to show both flair and good taste before he even plays a note of Bach. Adding a beautiful flourish of his own to the beginning of the Fantasia in g, he immediately seizes the listener’s attention. Though his playing is grand and often fiercely virtuosic in the rest of the piece, he never crosses the line into dazzle for dazzle’s sake. The fugue sparkles, then grows to a thunderous conclusion.

Those used to hearing big registrations for the Prelude and Fugue in b will be surprised by the somber approach on this disc. There’s some evidence that these pieces might have been played as prelude and postlude for the funeral of the Electress of Saxony in 1727, and the organist chooses soft registrations that would have fit that occasion. Swells and ebbs in dynamics enliven the prelude. The fugue also begins softly — with tremolo — but grows to a large, reedy plenum as Bach’s winding counterpoint increases in intensity.

The other big pieces are the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C, and the Passacaglia and Fugue in c. He dashes off the Toccata brightly with contrasting registrations for its echoes both in manuals and pedal, adding a little personal flourish at the end. The Adagio is slow and staid, the bridge to the fugue played on an 8’ principal with tremulant and a pregnant decrescendo at the end. Houlihan’s open articulation makes the fugue especially festive, and his choice of the alternate ending (a long C Major chord rather than a dismissive one) brings the piece to a splendid conclusion.

HoulihanHis registration of the Passacaglia is colorful and subtle. He sneaks the reeds in and out using the swell shades, and backs off from big registrations to let the last of the twenty variations gain in intensity. The fugue clicks right along, Houlihan teasing the theme out of inner voices with reed stops. A big rallentando sets up the Neapolitan chord near the end — a chord he sits on for a long time before adding a tiny cadenza and bringing the piece to an end on full organ.

The organist’s clever arrangement of the Italian Concerto turns this harpsichord piece into quite a different animal. It takes some getting used to, especially the plenum with its galumphing pedal line he chooses for the third movement. It might work better with lighter textures in a drier acoustic.

His performance of the Trio Sonata in G is delightful — clear and piquant with 8’ stops in the pedal for the first two movements. A trumpet stop in one hand and 16’ pedal registers thicken up the last movement, but Houlihan’s playing remains vivacious.

The 1971 Austin instrument in Mather Chapel has French stop names but an American Classical soul. Its variety of timbres provide the performer a lot to work with, and he uses its resources judiciously. Azica gives a fine sense of the sound of the instrument as well as capturing the ambiance of the chapel.

This recording presents a view of Christopher Houlihan’s artistry that should appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners — Bach purists included.

Christopher Houlihan will make two Northeast Ohio appearances this spring: on Sunday, March 19 at 5:00 pm at Christ Presbyterian Church in Canton, and on Sunday, April 23 at 4:00 pm at Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown.

WHQR Communique: "Dazzling" Organist Christopher Houlihan Performs At St. Paul's Friday, 3/10


The New York Times calls him "gifted"; the Wall Street Journal says his performance is "dazzling." The LA Times proclaims him as "the next big organ talent." He hasn't hit 30 yet, but young Christopher Houlihan is taking the organ world by storm, and he's performing in Wilmington on Friday, March 10 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. He drew a great deal of attention when he performed all 6 of Louis Vierne's organ symphonies in 2012, and he'll play excerpts (Scherzo, Cantabile, & Allegro) from Vierne's 2nd Symphony on Friday night, plus Vierne's Carillon de Westminster, J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto, and César Franck's Choral II in B minor.

Listen here to hear Houlihan talk about his relationship with the many organs he plays in his travels.

Tickets for the concert are available online and at the door.

Texas Public Radio: Bach's Music Continues To Inspire New Interpretations

Both musicians and classical fans adore Bach for much the same reasons—the German composer combined harmonic invention and melody to create lasting works of beauty. His music is also endlessly pliable, revealing new insight when played or heard on a variety of instruments. Recently I’ve been enjoying two new releases that don’t stray too far from the instruments of Bach’s time, but there are some key differences.

Of course there were no pianos around when Bach was writing, but pianist Rafał Blechacz approaches his instrument with an ear toward the staccato sound of the harpsicord on Bach’s “Italian Concerto,” which opens up his new all-Bach album on Deutsche Grammophon. On other works on the CD, including a couple of partitas and a fantasia and fugue, Blechacz pushes and pulls through dynamic changes, bringing if not a 19th century romanticism to the music, then at least drama and lyricism. The disc ends on a lovely sigh with that staple of spring weddings, Myra Hess’s arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Christopher Houlihan also includes the “Italian Concerto” on his new all-Bach disc, performed on the organ of Trinity College Church in Hartford, Connecticut. As pointed out in the liner notes, the electrically-powered instrument, built in 1972, affords the soloist more flexibility with sound and dynamics than any organ of Bach’s time. Houlihan, who arranged the “Italian Concerto” himself for organ, also includes pedal bass notes in his version that aren’t in the original score. It lends a stately, almost orchestral sound to the piece. I was reminded of Houlihan’s performance of the music in San Antonio a couple of years ago when he performed an evening recital for the Tuesday Musical Club. What a beautiful sound he coaxes from the instrument. A variety of fantasias, passacaglias and fugues round out the album, available from Azica Records.

Winnipeg Free Press review: Christopher Houlihan plays Bach

American organist Christopher Houlihan goes toe-to-toe with the "king of instruments" in his first all-Bach recording. The 29-year old dynamo performs five of the Baroque master’s enthralling pipe organ works, as well as his own intriguing arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Italian Concerto BWV 971.

Recorded on a relatively modern organ at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Houlihan’s skillful interpretation of such classics as Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, a.k.a. The Great, features non-traditional dynamic shadings and register changes that might rattle purists’ bones, positing that Bach’s creative genius would have allowed these nuances, if they’d been possible. This is especially displayed during his interpretation of the Italian-styled, three-movement work originally penned for harpsichord. Nevertheless, his conviction in performing it on organ, replete with booming pedal tones, adds an orchestral sensibility while ultimately deepening one’s appreciation.

The album also includes the intensely dramatic Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544 and Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, wisely balanced with lighter fare: Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 530, which further showcases the soloist’s sparkling technique. Finally, Houlihan treats listeners to the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, regarded one of the organ repertoire’s cornerstones, performed with flourish right up to its last, thunderous chord. ★★★★

— Holly Harris

WUOL Interview: Daniel Gilliam talks with Houlihan about discovering a new instrument

Violinists carry their own, familiar instrument to every concert. Pianists may play different pianos, with different characteristics, but generally all pianos work the same way. Organists have the peculiar challenge of learning an entirely new instrument, each time they perform. For Christopher Houlihan, this is a lengthy process. Daniel Gilliam talks with Houlihan about discovering a new instrument, and his favorite work on his concert at St. Francis in the Fields on November 20 at 5pm.

New CD: Christopher Houlihan plays Bach

Cover art: Sam Kalda

Cover art: Sam Kalda

This winter the acclaimed organist Christopher Houlihan releases an all-Bach CD. The recording features five of J.S. Bach's most substantial organ masterpieces - as well as Houlihan's own arrangement of the ever-popular keyboard work, the Italian Concerto BWV 971. Christopher Houlihan plays Bach (Azica ACD-71314) is released on February 17, 2017.

The young American musician Christopher Houlihan is widely acknowledged as one of the brightest stars in the new generation of organists, praised by the media as "dazzling" (Wall Street Journal), "eloquent" (Los Angeles Times) and "gifted" (New York Times). Houlihan has established an international reputation for his artistry with performances in celebrated venues in major cities across North America and Europe, as well as at numerous conventions of the American Guild of Organists and the Organ Historical Society.

The organ works of J.S. Bach stand at the pinnacle of serious organ repertoire. Himself a virtuoso organist, Bach astounded audiences in his performances across Europe. While Bach's organ works are timeless, the organ as an instrument has changed a great deal since the 18th century. This led the distinguished concert organist Christopher Houlihan to pose a question: how might an organ virtuoso's playing make an even greater impression on listeners when performed on instruments that are distinctly different from those of Bach's time? Houlihan answers that question in this, his first CD devoted entirely to Bach masterpieces.

Houlihan says, "The past sixty or so years have seen numerous, groundbreaking recordings of Bach's music on historic and historically informed instruments; this recording is a decidedly modern take on this repertoire. You'll hear crescendos and diminuendos as well as registration changes that are only possible on a modern organ. I do not believe this distorts Bach's genius, but rather highlights different aspects of it. It's a little like playing Bach on a piano: perhaps one doesn't play it like Liszt would have, but how much does one pretend the piano is a harpsichord?"

Christopher Houlihan plays Bach (Azica ACD-71314) is his first release on the Azica label, and is the latest addition to his discography, which also includes recordings on the Towerhill label. The performances were recorded at the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, CT on the Austin Organ op. 2536. The recording is available on CD and in digital format and is distributed by Naxos USA.

Organist Christopher Houlihan
Johann Sebastian Bach
Azica ACD-71314


Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 11:12
Italian Concerto, BWV 971 (arr. Houlihan) 13:50
Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544 13:30
Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 530 12:43
Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, BWV 564 15:17
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 13:22

Huffington Post previews Christopher Houlihan at Grace Cathedral

By: Sean Martinfield

Acclaimed organist Christopher Houlihan returns to San Francisco for an all-French program at Grace Cathedral this coming Sunday at 4pm. Christopher’s selections include Louis Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster and “Scherzo, Cantabile, and Allegro” from Symphony No. 2; César Franck’s Choral II in B minor; and Olivier Messiaen’s “Serene Alleluias and Outbursts of Joy”, from L’ascension. The loftiness of Grace Cathedral and the carriage of its sound reflects the environment in which the writers created these works. The compositions abound in imagery, emotional spirals, complex architecture, and - as I suggested to Christopher - a few squirrelly moments here and there. The 7,466 pipes of the cathedral’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner are in for a full-range work-out.

“I really wanted a program that was going to do all of that,” said Christopher. “Overwhelm them with the power of the organ and then make them lean-in to listen. You’re right - some of this music is demanding. Starting with the Vierne ‘Carillon de Westminster’ - which I think is a fun way to begin. It’s based on the Westminster chime themes that everyone knows and probably as a clock chime. Vierne has this fantasy on the theme. You get the gear turning in the clock and hear the bells bonging down in the pedals. It builds and builds to a huge climax.

“People are often surprised by the idea that every organ is different. Every organ is custom built for the space it is in. The organ at Grace Cathedral is an instrument that can grab your attention. Grace Cathedral is a true cathedral space - a huge building with that kind of acoustic. So, you need to choose music that’s going to fill that room in a captivating way. This is the kind of music that can fill that kind of grand space.”

“Vierne was organist at Notre Dame Cathedral. He knew this kind of reverberation. These pieces really feel at home in an acoustic more like Grace Cathedral than at Davies Hall. I think they work in a variety of acoustics. I tend to like a drier acoustic - you hear details in the pieces differently. In the Franck especially, there is some fugal writing, as well as in the Vierne symphony - intricate details that you can’t hear as precisely in a wet room. The effect is different, but there is still appreciation. Franck is very interested in the music of Bach and counterpoint. Franck’s choral is huge, really a choral fantasia - it goes off in all sorts of directions. But in the middle of it there is a bit of a fugue - a Franck fugue, not a Bach fugue. It’s like Franck is imitating Bach or sort-of tipping his hat to Bach - but doing so in his own voice. We have these musical lines that weave together on their own. They could be independent, but the melodies weave together in a magical way. Basically, that’s what counterpoint is - independent lines that could otherwise exist on their own but work together.”

Works with descriptive titles, such as Messiaen’s L’ascension, can guide a listener (possessed with an active imagination) through a specific, even mind-boggling event. The piece might also serve as a meditation or means for exploring the subject - in this case, a tenet of Christian faith. Messiaen’s relentlessly challenging Livre Du Saint-Sacrement is a supreme example. Are the works intended to persuade? I asked Christopher (“Houli” to his loyal fanbase) for a hit on this idea - keeping in mind that Franck’s B minor choral appeals to an appreciation of music for its own sake.

“Possibly. In some ways, yes. Franck’s music exists on it own. Maybe it’s more like a poem than a painting. It’s a piece that takes you on a bit of a journey. It has its two themes that weave together in interesting ways that surprise you. It also has different moods along the way. It’s melancholy and then it’s fiery, contemplative and ethereal. It goes through all these different atmospheres. Whereas Messiaen is trying to depict one story, one idea. I have to approach the Messiaen pieces as I would looking at a painting. The subject matter may be a sacred image, but I can still appreciate the beauty of the painting, the technique that went into creating it, and the overall effect of it. I don’t think you have to be a devout Catholic to appreciate and be bowled over by the beauty of Messiaen’s music. I know that can be challenging for some people. But you can approach it with an open mind and appreciate the image being painted whether or not you have a connection to the subject matter. I play music I want to hear. I try to communicate to the non-organists in the room. For me, that’s the way to be an effective musician. Organ music needs to be appreciated by a wide audience - if we want to have it survive and have any relevance. That is more interesting to me, more satisfying.”

Christopher’s latest recording, Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach will be released on the Azica label February 17. The album was recorded at the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, Connecticut. Among its fifteen tracks are the composer’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor; Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor; and Christopher’s arrangement of the Italian Concerto.

“I grew up having my first organ lessons there. I am an Artist in Residence at the college now. I wanted to record Bach on a modern organ. It’s not an historical recording. I wanted to play Bach in a very colorful way, with a wide range of sounds and dynamics. The beautiful thing about the Trinity College organ is that it has all that color and fire and maintains a lot of clarity - even at full organ. It seemed like it would be an interesting experiment. I’m really happy with the way the recording came out.

“Historical organs are certainly very colorful. On a modern organ you can have, within the same piece, a wider variety of sounds and dynamics. You can have big crescendos, colors and sounds that Bach didn’t know himself or would have been able to execute on organs that he knew - but which I believe are in the spirit of the music. It’s a little bit like orchestrating a Bach piece for a Mahler-size orchestra - you take a few liberties. It may not be exactly what Bach heard, but I hope the recording highlights other aspects of the music in a new way.”

“When you are lucky enough to sit in a space like Grace Cathedral and can hear a great instrument and take the time to appreciate it - I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t taken something away from that experience and have been moved in some way. It’s incredible. There’s nothing like it. But it takes an opportunity and a bit of aloneness on the part of the listener to engage with what they’re hearing. That’s really what I try to do - to engage the listener to feel something, to go on this musical journey with me, to listen to what these composers wrote down and felt that people needed to hear. I try to focus on the music I love. And to communicate it the best way possible to anyone who will listen. Great music keeps me going - the music of Bach and Franck. That has to be my motivation. Absolutely, my best motivation.”

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© 2017 Christopher Houlihan