Young star brings fresh ears to the pipe organ


Earlier this year, Christopher Houlihan dazzled the classical-music world with a series of concerts in American cities in which he performed the six organ symphonies by French composer Louis Vierne.

The concerts earned the 25-year-old Houlihan a cascade of critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times called his performance in that city “a major surprise of the summer, a true revelation ... astonishing for so young a performer.”

A reviewer for The Wall Street Journal said Houlihan displayed “a virtuoso’s technical prowess, an architect’s grasp of structure and a torch singer’s ability to convey emotions.”

On Sunday, Youngstown audiences will be able to witness the rising star in person when Houlihan comes to Stambaugh Auditorium for a concert on the grand pipe organ.

Houlihan, a graduate of Trinity College in Connecticut and the Juilliard School, answered a few questions before his Youngstown appearance.

Q. What is it about the pipe organ, and the ominous-sounding classical symphonies written for it, that attracts you?

A. There is no other singular instrument that has the variety and enormous dynamic range of the organ. Strings, flutes, oboes, trumpets, tubas ... the organ has it all. It can rip your head off with power one moment, and the next be as faint as a whisper. As an organist, I get to be a lot like a conductor, manipulating this enormously complex machine into making beautiful music. Louis Vierne’s symphonies, in particular, make use of the organ for all of its colors and sounds. But I particularly love Vierne’s music because his writing is very, very personal. His life was incredibly tragic, and his frustration is often palpable. At the same time, he gives us humor, romance and extreme joy.

Q. Do you see yourself starting a movement to bring more organ music into concert halls and to resurrect a new, and possibly younger, fan base?

A. Why not?! Whether I play a recital in a concert hall or a church, the music I perform has very little to do with the “religious” image the organ has. I find this is something that tends to turn off many of my friends — the idea that going to hear organ music somehow has something to do with going to church. This just isn’t true.

Q. What pieces will be on the program at your concert in Youngstown?

A. I’ll be playing three of my all-time favorite pieces: Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, a mesmerizing set of variations; Franck’s Grande Piece Symphonique, basically the first “symphony” ever written for the organ; and Vierne’s Sixth Symphony, the last of the French-romantic organ symphonies. The Franck and Vierne are sensual, exciting and colorful from beginning to end.

Q. Stambaugh Auditorium is known for two things: its superb acoustics and its newly restored pipe organ. Are you looking forward to playing it?

A. Can’t wait! Sounds like an extraordinary place to make music.

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