Christopher Houlihan

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.

Lucid Culture reviews Christopher Houlihan in Newark

Lucid Culture reviews Christopher Houlihan in Newark

Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The Classical Post interviews Christopher Houlihan

The Classical Post interviews Christopher Houlihan

The organ is louder and more impressive than a piano, thought a young Christopher Houlihan. Now, the musician and professor sets out to teach the next generation of organists while also showing the world how colorful and exciting organ music can be.

Houlihan interviewed by Stephen Petke on WWUH

Houlihan interviewed by Stephen Petke on WWUH

Christopher Houlihan performs his first recital as faculty member of Hartford's Trinity College on April 20 at 7:30 pm. The Annual Clarence Watters Memorial Recital takes place at Trinity College Chapel (300 Summit St, Hartford, CT).

Christopher Houlihan interview with Ross Amico of WWFM

Christopher Houlihan interview with Ross Amico of WWFM

Christopher Houlihan spoke with Ross Amico of WWFM in advance of Sunday’s recital.

NEPR Interview with Christopher Houlihan

NEPR Interview with Christopher Houlihan

Organist Christopher Houlihan talks with John Nowacki of New England Public Radio about his new role at Trinity College as the John Rose College Organist and Director of Chapel Music and his recently released Bach CD.

Oct. 22: Renowned organist Christopher Houlihan in La Grange

Oct. 22: Renowned organist Christopher Houlihan in La Grange

Houlihan's recital will showcase the beauty and versatility of First United Methodist's newly rebuilt organ in a diverse program of music by Bach, Vierne, Messiaen and Sowerby.

Gramophone Review – “Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach”

Gramophone Review – “Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach”

Christopher Houlihan commences BWV542’s Fantasia with a delightful introductory flourish, and characterises the rippling fireworks and introspective interludes with strikingly different yet compelling timbral contrasts, topping things off with a brisk and fluent fugue.

The Whole Note CD review: Christopher Houlihan plays Bach

The Whole Note CD review: Christopher Houlihan plays Bach

Organ music fans have another CD to add to their collections with Christopher Houlihan Plays Bach.

An organist's marathon, as Houlihan plays Vierne

An organist's marathon, as Houlihan plays Vierne

"It's very personal music," Houlihan says, "full of lots of emotion. This music sort of welcomes you into Vierne's life. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

LA Times Review: Louis Vierne's organ symphonies are a revelation

LA Times Review: Louis Vierne's organ symphonies are a revelation

In Christopher Houlihan's eloquent hands, the composer's gloomily gothic writing proves graceful and full of life.

Houlihan provides Vierne with distinctive and colorful advocacy

Houlihan provides Vierne with distinctive and colorful advocacy

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.

Wall Street Journal Review - Six Symphonies in the French Romantic Style

Wall Street Journal Review - Six Symphonies in the French Romantic Style

His deft footwork on the pedals throughout the concerts prompted one listener to dub him "the Fred Astaire of the pipe organ.