By Lawrence A. Johnson
Chicago Classical Review
9 July 2012
An unexpected summer musical treat was served up last weekend at Rockefeller Chapel by organist Christopher Houlihan.
The 24-year-old Juilliard graduate is marking the 75th anniversary of Louis Vierne’s death with a six-city tour performing the French composer’s complete organ symphonies.
On Saturday, Houlihan presented the second and final program of his Chicago cycle, offering Vierne’s even-numbered symphonies. The evening of offbeat, compelling music was enhanced by the young soloist’s informed and engaging introductions.
Like all great artists, Vierne’s music evolved and grew in individuality and complexity, moving stylistically from under the looming shadow of his teacher Widor to find his own quirky and chromatic voice.
The Organ Symphony No. 2 in E minor is cyclical in structure, as are all the works heard Saturday. The tense, urgent theme of the opening Allegro works up a great deal of sturm and drang, morphing into the brooding main motif of the Cantabile, here rendered with great freedom of phrasing by Houlihan. In this work, as indeed throughout, Houlihan showed great virtuosity as well as ingenuity in his use of registrations and contrasting colors on Rockefeller’s mighty E. M. Skinner organ. The somber pedal solo of the Choral was contrasted with the ensuing chromatic fireworks and the wry humor of the Scherzo with its high liquid notes. The opening blast of the Final displayed the Skinner’s full sonic heft with Houlihan working up the inexorable march-like main theme to an exciting and thunderous conclusion.
One can hear Vierne finding his own compositional voice in the Organ Symphony No. 4 in G minor with the bleak Gothic grandeur of the introspective Prelude and the almost incongruous playful charm of the Menuet. The rich lyricism of the Romance was played by Houlihan with great expressive restraint and elegance, the ominous pedal solo answered by the cooling balm of the organ’s high flutes. The Final virtually defines High Gothic style, with its menacing Phantom of the Opera-esque dark drama, given a virtuosic reading by Houlihan.
It is with Vierne’s final work in the genre (Organ Symphony No. 6 in B minor) that the composer reaches his pinnacle. Like Beethoven in his late quartets, the boundaries of structure seems almost irrelevant with Vierne palpably reaching for a higher, more elliptical expression. Once again, Houlihan was a first-class advocate, conveying the mellow rumination of the Aria with subtle colors, as surely as the jokey galumphing Scherzo and the enigmatic Adagio before closing with a sonic full-bore blast at the coda.
The surprisingly large audience gave the gifted young organist a roaring and well-deserved standing ovation at concert’s end. Let’s hope some enterprising label snaps Christopher Houlihan up to record this music soon.