Washington Blade interviews Christopher Houlihan
Washington Blade, April 29, 2016
by Joey DiGuglielmo
Organist Christopher Houlihan took a few minutes with us by phone from Hartford, Conn., where he was playing at his alma mater Trinity College (where he’s artist in residence) in advance of his Washington recital next week. He plays the Kennedy Center on Wednesday, May 4. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Does organ music translate well to iPods?
CHRISTOPHER HOULIHAN: I think it can. … Some pieces work better than others. I don’t tend to listen to it if I just want to have some music playing because if it’s organ music, I tend to focus on it too much. If you want the best experience possible, there’s nothing more exciting than a live organ shaking the room.
BLADE: Recording organ is hard with all the outside noise that can happen. Can engineers take out sirens and that sort of thing?
HOULIHAN: In my experience, we haven’t been able to do that. We’ve had to do another take. But yes, recording in a big city is really tough. You usually have to do it in the middle of the night. But then sometimes if it rains, you lose a whole night.
BLADE: Do you plan to keep recording and releasing CDs?
HOULIHAN: I would definitely like to do more. I have a Bach CD that’s in the works to be released. … I hope in time over what I hope is a long career that I’ll have several recordings released.
BLADE: Can you tell which stops are pipe or digital on a hybrid organ?
HOULIHAN: When they’re done well, I think they can be very effective. … It’s a tough question to answer. I can tell, but I’ve played lots of hybrid organs and completely digital organs and what matters most is if you can make music on them and you absolutely can.
BLADE: What is the consensus among elite organists about the Kennedy Center’s new Casavant organ?
HOULIHAN: It has a good reputation. I haven’t heard it myself yet but I’m excited. I’ve played lots of Casavants and some of their more recent instruments and I have nothing but good things to say. I’m sure the Kennedy Center’s is equally stunning.
BLADE: How much of a consideration is audience familiarity with certain pieces when you’re programming a recital? Are some works perhaps too much to digest?
HOULIHAN: It’s somewhat a consideration. I think a program needs to have balance so I think playing something they’re familiar with helps but I also find people like to be a little challenged and there are things they’ll like and find interesting whether they’re familiar with them or not. Most people aren’t familiar with a whole lot beyond the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, so it’s hard to give that too much weight.
BLADE: You played at First Baptist Church in Washington in 2013. How was it for you?
HOULIHAN: I had a great time. It’s a great space for organ music. The Austin organ there is enormous and has a great variety of colors and beautiful sounds.
BLADE: You don’t seem to post much on Facebook. How do you stay focused?
HOULIHAN: I guess I’m on Facebook as much as anybody. I don’t post a lot, but when it comes time to work, I put my phone aside and focus on practicing. Then I take a break when it’s time to take a break. … I’m much more interested in reaping the benefits of practicing. It’s not especially hard once you get yourself to the organ bench.
BLADE: (Your former teacher) Paul Jacobs was here last month at the Kennedy Center. What was your biggest overall lesson from your time with him?
HOULIHAN: I think one of the things all of Paul’s students would say is the level of commitment and discipline he brings to what he does. It’s inspiring and he expects no less from his students. That’s something that’s stuck with me for sure. To get a good result, you have to put in a lot of effort. He is very demanding of that and it pays off.
BLADE: On average about how long do you spend on a major work from first read until you perform it in recital?
HOULIHAN: I have no idea. I should calculate it someday. I tend to learn slowly. I’d rather take more time learning something before I bring it on the road. That works best for me but as for a specific amount of time, I don’t really know.
BLADE: Where were you when you heard about the Supreme Court marriage ruling last year? How did you feel?
HOULIHAN: I was thrilled. My mom was visiting New York City and we went out for pizza to celebrate.
BLADE: Is that an issue you followed very closely?
HOULIHAN: It was something I’d hoped for as a gay person and I’m thrilled it’s the law of the land. But it’s also important to me now that we continue to fight, especially for trans people.
BLADE: Has being out ever been a professional hindrance in any perceptible way?
HOULIHAN: Not that I can think of. I suppose if a church didn’t want to invite me to play because of that, I’d never know about it. My church in New York, Church of the Holy Apostles, is incredibly gay friendly.
BLADE: Do the technical challenges of playing lighten at a certain level of proficiency or are they always there?
HOULIHAN: There are always technical obstacles there for anyone who really wants to grow and challenge themselves. But they’re exciting to work on and over time you learn how to practice and how to work on those challenges. It doesn’t get easier, but you learn how to tackle them.
BLADE: You seem genuinely nice. Do people prey on that?
HOULIHAN: I certainly know how to stand up for myself when that’s required.