By Allan M. Jalon
Los Angeles Times
14 July 2012
NEW YORK — Few artists suffered the Job-like misfortunes of composer-organist Louis Vierne. Born almost blind, in 1870, he badly injured his leg when he fell in a Paris street as a young man and had his heart broken by the best friend who slept with his wife. A brother and son died in World War I. Then came financial ruin, more women who left him and the total loss of his sight.Vierne had good luck too, from family connections that brought him into the center of French musical life as the 19th century turned into the 20th to his career as the chief organist of Notre Dame Cathedral between 1900 and his death in 1937 while sitting at the great instrument. He also turned the repeated traumas that broke over him into late Romantic music that bears traces of Richard Wagner and César Franck, his idol and teacher.
His six symphonies for solo organ, little known to most classical music listeners, are landmarks of the organ repertoire. All are in minor keys. The later ones, especially, make technically harrowing journeys through emotional depths before erupting into room-shuddering jubilation. Most organists who play Vierne stick to a movement or two, mostly the more uplifting finales. On Thursday and Friday, Christopher Houlihan, a 24-year-old, increasingly celebrated concert organist, will perform all six symphonies at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
People have played Vierne marathons before, including Rollin Smith, an organist and author of a Vierne biography that details a visit that Vierne made to Los Angeles in 1927. Still, such programs are rare. Houlihan is young for the feat, but he won high marks when he began a six-city tour at New York's Church of the Ascension on June 2, the 75th anniversary of Vierne's death. There, he tackled all six symphonies on one night and a New York Times critic praised his "flexibility and clarity, "and "a glamorous sheen appropriate to Vierne's music."
He also practices at the Church of the Ascension between concerts in his summer of playing what one prominent organist privately says is "music full of beauty and honesty but not as important as Debussy" (though Debussy called Vierne's Second Symphony "remarkable").
He climbs from the console to talk about performances that unfold over four hours. "I love Vierne's symphonies, and they are rarely done in their entirety," Houlihan says. "People don't realize how exciting and powerful this music really is. There is a reason they are called symphonies, not just organ sonatas.
"Vierne uses the organ like a whole orchestra. There are flutes and oboes, strings and reeds, all these wonderful colors."
He's a lanky man, seemingly buoyant and irreversibly secure in his easy confidence. He seems older than his years, at least when he speaks of music. Houlihan says his tour stems largely from his impulse to seek a more central role for his instrument.
"I am genuinely concerned with taking the organ, and organ music, out of the corner it's in as a second-class citizen in the classical music world," Houlihan says. "I think Vierne gives me a special way to bridge the gap between organists and the rest of people who might never go to an organ concert."
One problem, he believes, is that many concertgoers think organ music is "churchy." He embraces the organ's religious associations but points out that a lot of its best music is secular, including Vierne's, which also includes songs and chamber music. Then there's the Hollywood stereotype, the organ as partner to horror films. "I like how this music shakes up perceptions about what an organ recital is about," he declares. "It's not Halloween music. It's not funereal. It's not boring drone. People are surprised at the feelings it creates."
If Shakespeare's King Lear wrote music, it might sound like Vierne's, with its thunderously bleak chords, stretches of sad wandering and dawnings of hope. Though basically tonal, it moves into what Houlihan calls a "slithering chromaticism." At the organ, he demonstrated a rhythmically propulsive section of the Sixth Symphony, his hands working three keyboards and his feet driving the pedals as if he was rehearsing for a dancing role in "The Rite of Spring."
Houlihan, like Vierne, started playing young. Growing up in the northern Connecticut town of Somers, he showed early promise on the piano. At 12, he responded so strongly to an organ recital that his family asked the organist, John Rose, to give him lessons. Rose, who teaches at Trinity College in nearby Hartford, recalled in an interview that he instantly heard "a musicality Christopher had when he played the most simple pieces."
After Trinity, he went on to Juilliard, where leading organist Paul Jacobs noticed his "bold expressiveness." He also studied for a year in Paris, where he recently returned and performed on the organ at Notre Dame.
Houlihan says that, when in Los Angeles, he might at least drive past the site of Vierne's performance on March 25, 1927. That Sunday morning, the great organist from Notre Dame appeared at Hollywood High School, playing one of his famous improvisations before 2,500 people on the school's well-known E.M. Skinner organ.
People later described how Vierne stepped to the Hollywood High console on the arm of a beautiful young Frenchwoman who joined him for his tour but ended up leaving him too. One local critic wrote of hearing "a creator of genius."
Ten years later, Vierne's tragic counterpoint of loss and creativity followed him to the end. He was about to start an improvisation as part of his 1,750th recital on the Notre Dame organ when he collapsed from a likely heart attack and slid from the bench. His foot landed on the low E pedal and the note echoed through the cathedral as he died.
Houlihan, lacking the funds or name recognition to tour concert halls, is playing churches. Friends and family are paying his way. He won't give the total, but donations ranged between $20 and $7,000. He chose organs whose expansive powers could match Vierne's sweeping pieces. Houlihan hasn't played the 6,019-pipe Dobson organ at Our Lady of the Angels, but Paul Jacobs has and calls it "ideal for Vierne."
As Houlihan explains, a big distinction between organs and other kinds of instruments is that organs are built into rooms, the sound converting to physical sensation. "There is no other instrument that makes you shake with the sound like an organ," the emerging master says.