Theater Jones, Dallas
August 17, 2012
by Gregory Isaacs
On Saturday, at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, a musical immersion into late French Romantic organ music will take place. Organist Christopher Houlihan, a brilliant young virtuoso, will perform all six of the organ symphonies of Louis Vierne (1870-1937) in an afternoon and evening session. It is the end of a six-city tour of this massive recital, which started on June 2 at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
These symphonies are large multi-movement works, much like the big piano sonatas of Brahms, Beethoven, and Liszt in concept and organization. "The organ is a whole orchestra in itself," says the 24-year-old Houlihan, "so the term 'sonata' just wasn't big enough for these pieces. Although written for organ, Vierne notates in the score the sound he wants, such as oboe, brass or flutes."
First, a little geek-talk.
Organs are a series of pipes, or ranks, each of which sounds different and each of which has one pipe for each note on the instrument—from the lowest pedal to the highest note on the keyboard. Ranks cover a wide range of sounds from reeds (such as the oboe), flutes, strings, and brass. These ranks are controlled by "stops"—a lever on the console that either turns the air on for that rank, allowing it to sound, or turns it off. The organ in the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation has 80 such ranks. It is the infinite variety of combinations of the ranks that give the organ its ability to be an entire orchestra. How an organist chooses from this bewildering variety is an art unto itself and it is called the "registration" for a particular performance.
Of course, since all organs are different. Houlihan must arrive a few days early and adapt his registrations for the instrument at hand. Organs have always had tabs or buttons that allow the player to "pre-set" the hundreds of changes that a concert requires. "For the Saturday concert, I will be getting there on Wednesday and do 10 to 12 hour days," he said. "New organs have many levels of presets, so I can set up all six symphonies ahead of time. Older organs, such as the one I played in Montreal, only have a limited number of presets, so I had to change all of the set up in between the two concerts. Since organ registration is unique to each instrument, I have to make all new decisions for each concert."
Louis Vierne's music is little known outside of the organ world. His main claim to fame was that he was organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a post he held from 1900 until his death in 1937. He also was a teacher to some of the greatest organists of the next generation. However, as a composer, he is only remembered for his many organ works.
"He died in a particularly bizarre way," Houlihan said. "He was playing a recital and, after the main program, he always did some improvisations on themes suggested by the audience. Suddenly he hit the low "E" on the pedal board and everyone thought that this was the dramatic start. However, he had suffered a heart attack and hit the pedal as he fell off the bench."
The young and vibrant Houlihan should have no such troubles sailing through his difficult programs. He has already played his Vierne marathon five times and thinks that his concepts have fine-tuned with each outing. Dallas, however, is the second time he has played the two concerts in one day. Usually, he has played them on two consecutive evenings. When I jokingly asked if he held any superstitions about Vierne's untimely ending, he laughed and said, "The concert is a bit exhausting, but I played them all in one day in New York when I started the tour and felt like I could have played them again when I was finished."
Vierne's life was tragic at every turn and he had no end of troubles to overcome. First of all, congenital cataracts rendered him what we now call "legally" blind. Early on, he was able to write with extra large paper and thick lined pencils but, later in life resorted to Braille. His beloved wife dumped him and his brother René and his son Jacques were killed on World War I. He broke his leg and had to relearn completely his pedal technique. Even though the organ job at Notre Dame was prestigious, the organ was in terrible condition for much of his time in the post.
Houlihan's life has been much sunnier. A native of Somers, Connecticut, he earned a bachelor's degree at Trinity College in Hartford and a master's degree at the Juilliard School. His talents were recognized early and encouraged. When he was 15, he won first prize in the Albert Schweitzer Nation Organ Competition. He has a wall full of other accolades, such as Prix de Perfectionnement from the French National Regional Conservatory in Versailles. Towerhill Recordings released his first CD, a Vierne symphony (natch), in 2007 to great acclaim. This current Vierne tour has brought universal praise from critics in every city where he has appeared. He already has a fanatical following of "Houli Fans," much like a rock star. Some other organists sniff a little at all of this hoopla, but "Houli" is bringing a lot of attention to an instrument that is badly in need of it. Organ concerts are routinely ignored and poorly attended. He packs 'em in.
Unlike a pianist, who can own an instrument and have it conveniently located in their residence, an organist requires a major instrument, and they are mostly located in big churches. Thus, Houlihan is Artist-in-Residence at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church in New York. "I am not the regular organist for services, but I play for them occasionally and give recitals there. But this is better than practicing on a piano in a stuffy room. I get to practice in this glorious sanctuary," he said.
So, on Saturday, the place to be is the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation for one or both of Houlihan's massive Vierne concerts. You will be able to hear one of the area's finest organs put through it paces. This organ is a result of a re-do by the Noack Organ Company and is titled Opus 127. It is comprised of the core of the original 1961 Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1370 organ. The re-do added considerably and the present day instrument contains some 4,100 pipes incorporated in 80 ranks with 65 stops. All the details can be found here. You can be assured that Houlihan will use them all, and then some.
The program for Saturday, Aug. 18 is:
3 p.m.: Vierne: Symphonies I, III, V
7:30 p.m.: Vierne: Symphonies II, IV, VI