Insider Interview: Organist Christopher Houlihan

In the fall of 2019, organist Christopher Houlihan performs Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante with both the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (Sept. 27 & 29, as part of the Albert Schweitzer Organ Festival) and the St. Ann Festival Orchestra (Oct. 1) in Washington D.C. In this Insider Interview we spoke to Mr. Houlihan about the composer Joseph Jongen and what makes his Symphonie Concertante so special.

Tell me about the composer and organist Joseph Jongen.

Jongen was an organist, composer, and educator. Living from 1873–1953, he is considered, along with César Franck, one of Belgium’s most important composers. His music might be best described as late-romantic, certainly under the influence of his compatriot Franck, and tinged with hints of Strauss (with whom he briefly studied), Fauré, and Debussy. He is most well-known for his organ music, though he composed extensively for orchestra and chamber ensembles as well.

How did his Symphonie Concertante come about?

The Symphonie Concertante was commissioned in 1926 by Rodman Wanamaker and was to be premiered at his eponymous department store in Philadelphia, home to the world’s largest fully functioning pipe organ. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, the premier was cancelled; the work was premiered in Brussels in 1928 and the first American performance took place at Carnegie Hall in 1935. (Yes! For many years of its history, Carnegie Hall was home to a very large pipe organ; sadly, no longer.)

Jongen titled his work “Symphonie Concertante.” This is a fairly uncommon title, especially for a 20th century work.

            A symphonie concertante is a kind of hybrid piece, typically defined as a work for orchestra featuring at least two soloists. The soloists frequently play a virtuosic role, but at times also weave into the larger orchestral fabric of the piece. In the baroque era this kind of work might have been called a concerto grosso; in the romantic period it might have been called a double- or triple-concerto. In the classical period it was called a symphonie concertante. Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante for violin and viola is an extraordinary example of the form.

So, why a symphonie concertante in this case, and why only one soloist? What is your role like in the Jongen, does it differ from a soloist in a traditional concerto?

            The most famous piece for organ and orchestra is, of course, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, a piece which is sometimes thought of as a symphonie concertante. In it, the organ provides a sonic cushion for the orchestra at the start of the second movement, then acts as an orchestral foil during the last section of the work. Despite its fame, the Saint-Saëns symphony does not feature a very complicated or virtuosic role for the organist.

            Jongen provides his soloist with many opportunities to show off (especially in the perpetual motion toccata which concludes the piece) but also provides occasion to fade into the orchestral texture (for instance, the organ effectively accompanies the orchestra during much of the third movement).

            Because a great organ (especially the organ Jongen was writing for in Philadelphia) features so many individual sounds which often imitate the colors of an orchestra, all available at the fingertips of one organist, the piece is not merely a concerto—here, the organist is simultaneously several soloists as well as accompanist.

What’s your favorite moment(s) in the piece?

It’s impossible to pick a favorite moment in such a great piece! I especially love the second movement, the Divertimento. It reminds me of Louis Vierne and his quirky scherzos, full of spritely organ figurations one moment, and then reverential chorale like melodies the next.

With multiple performances of Jongen’s Symphony Concertante this season on different organs how do you prepare for those anticipated differences in instruments and halls, as well as with different orchestras and conductors?

As is in most endeavors, thorough preparation and practice is always helpful. I will most likely play the piece from memory so that I can focus more on being in sync with the conductor and orchestra. Because an organ soloist is often at some physical distance from the conductor, and the pipes of an organ may even be in a third location, organists have to be extraordinarily ready for whatever they might encounter when performing with an orchestra. I know the Trinity College organ particularly well, especially since I play it practically every day, and I have also previously heard and admired the St. Ann’s organ, so I know a little bit of what I’m in for sonically. However, in Washington, the organ is in a gallery several feet above the orchestra, so I’ll be watching the conductor via a camera and television monitor! Organists are used to this.