Christopher Houlihan

concert organist

American Record Guide review of Christopher Houlihan's San Diego recital

American Record Guide
November/December 2015

By Charlene Baldridge

Acclaimed by the New York Times for his “flexibility and clarity” and the Wall Street Journal for his “dazzling performances”, and furthermore proclaimed by the Los Angeles Times as “the next big organ talent”, Christopher Houlihan presented a personality-filled and passionate recital in San Diego June 30. He performed on the largest pipe organ in San Diego County, the 108-rank, 6,092-pipe instrument at the First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley. The completed organ was dedicated in 1989.

The free recital was part of the 2015 American Guild of Organists West Region Convention and also part of the church’s music series, so attendees comprised conventioneers, music series regulars, and music lovers from the community at large. If all the transepts and lofts are used, the church holds as many as 900. I didn’t see any empty seats. 

Houlihan played works spanning 400 years. They ranged from Bach and Brahms to a complete Louis Vierne organ symphony and a new Prelude and Fugue (in B-flat) by Henry Martin (b 1950), which Houlihan premiered at Holy Apostles Church in New York June 18. 

The visual aspects of the experience were as uplifting as the recital, played largely from memory. The organ console was moved to the center of the chancel and canted at an angle that allowed audience members to see the organ’s four manuals, pedalboard, and stops, plus Houlihan and his feet, so facile he is nicknamed “the Fred Astaire of the pipe organ”. 

The spectacular view beyond, entirely visible because the church is all glass, is a steep hillside with a prominent olive tree backed by several stately eucalyptus, all refreshed by rain earlier in the evening. Nature was as thirsty as we. Conference attendees and civilians alike accorded Houlihan a standing ovation and were rewarded with an encore, the third movement of Bach’s *I*Italian Concerto*P* for harpsichord, arranged by Houlihan himself. 

Houlihan began his program with Johannes Brahms’s early Prelude and Fugue in A minor followed immediately by his mature `O Welt, Ich Muss Dich Lassen’, No. 11. Then he launched into Martin’s Gershwinesque Prelude and Fugue, revealing in a spoken preface that it is the first of 24 prelude and fugues commissioned by Michael Barone, host of National Public Radio’s “Pipedreams”, a weekly program devoted to promoting and exploring the pipe organ. Martin is firmly grounded in the classics and the classical prelude and fugue, but he does love surprises. Houlihan declared he loved the audience’s audible gasp at the end of the work when its insinuations became manifest in the final statement. 

We gasped as well at Houlihan’s pillars of sound, produced for Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor, which he termed “the wedge” and said it turns into a kind of toccata fantasy. Indeed it does and will not be heard so well realized again. 

The second half of the program was entirely devoted to Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 4. Houlihan, who devoted a whole year touring and playing all six of Vierne’s organ symphonies, said that No. 4 was the one that challenged his understanding the most. He then recounted Vierne’s unhappy life, born nearly blind, unlucky in love and--an often-recounted story--dying at the keyboard with his foot on a bass pedal. He got the biggest laugh of the evening when he told the audience that Vierne’s wife even cheated on him with the organ tuner. 

From its lugubrious beginning through its “terrifying” final movement, the Vierne symphony was as thrilling and engrossing as the young organist (b 1987) who played it. He is as advertised, the bright hope of the organ.

© 2017 Christopher Houlihan