By Mia Clarke
Time Out Chicago
28 June 2012
Louis Vierne is to organists what John Bonham is to drummers. An undisputed king of keys, the French composer was born mostly blind but managed to rise up the ranks to snag one of the world’s most coveted pipe posts: principal organist of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. His death in 1937, at age 66, was theatrically macabre. A fatal heart attack in the middle of a performance brought Vierne’s foot crashing down upon the pedal, filling the room with his final note—a sustained low E.
Young organ star Christopher Houlihan says his tool of trade doesn’t deserve its rep as music’s most solemn instrument. “When I tell people I’m an organist, they think it’s because I’m really religious,” he laughs, chatting on the phone from Denver before a concert. “If I was a pianist, they’d ask me what kind of music I play! People often think of the organ as really churchy, or boring, when it’s not at all.”
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne’s death, the 25-year-old is rocking a six-date, coast-to-coast tour. His two Chicago performances slot into Rockefeller Chapel’s summer-long celebration of Vierne’s music, making the most of the church’s regal E.M. Skinner organ. Houlihan will give his digits a workout in a marathon performance of Vierne’s six organ symphonies—a rare feat, as it’s unusual to hear even one symphony in its entirety.
“The pieces are difficult, but so colorful and exciting,” explains the New Yorker. “To call them organ sonatas wasn’t enough—there are flutes, oboes, strings, trumpets, a whole symphony. The range of sounds in Vierne’s music can blow your head off. It’s like having a whole orchestra under my fingertips.”