World-class organ tunes to grace University United Methodist Church
by Robin Miller
April 16, 2016
Christopher Houlihan has an international reputation as an organist with critics calling him the “Fred Astaire of the pipe organ.” He’s playing at the Kennedy Center on May 4.
But that’s after he performs Sunday at University United Methodist Church, which is considerably smaller than a world-class concert hall. But Houlihan really likes the smaller venue.
“When I perform in places like University United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, I’m able to see the audience’s faces, and I’m able to watch their reactions,” Houlihan said. “I like to connect with them. I like to feel their energy.”
The concert is in honor of the church’s 75th anniversary, and Houlihan will include selections by Johann Sebastian Bach and Louis Vierne, whose six organ symphonies attracted international attention for the organist.
Houlihan embarked on a marathon series of concerts in 2012, in which he played Vierne’s symphonies in six major North American cities. And though Houlihan is happy to offer Baton Rougeans a sampling of his marathon, he’s even more excited to bring the church’s pipe organ to life.
That’s not saying the church’s organist doesn’t breathe life into the instrument each Sunday. It’s just Houlihan’s way of seeing each pipe organ as an individual.
“That’s one of the characteristics of an organist —- we have to go where the instrument is, and each pipe organ is different,” Houlihan said. “I think some people have the impression that organ music is dronelike. I approach the organ with the idea of bringing it to life, making it sound very human and vital and clear. There are a number of colors, sounds and variations that every pipe organ has, and I want to bring that to life.”
Houlihan, one music critic wrote, “plays with the technical prowess of a rock star.” His performances are so energetic, Houlihan fans call themselves “Houlifans.”
This group came together when Houlihan was a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Three of his close friends heard him playing and were surprised by the organ’s vibrant sound, so they began rounding up fellow students to attend Houlihan’s recitals.
“They called me Houli,” the organist said, laughing. “They still call me Houli, and they called themselves the Houlifans.”
The Houlifans chartered buses to shuttle dozens of students to hear the organist perform with the Hartford Symphony in 2008. In 2012, Houlifans collectively funded Houlihan’s Vierne 2012 tour, and the Los Angeles Times credited the group, saying, “The Houlifans can give themselves high-fives. They’ve helped launch a major career.”
Now, anyone can become a Houlifan by “liking” the Facebook page the group created for the organist, facebook.com/houlifans.
Houlihan earned his master’s degree from the Juilliard School in New York and made his Disney Hall debut in a concert with the principal brass with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in fall 2014. ***